The lure of sunken treasure fascinates millions. While it is unknown how many shipwrecks containing treasure exist deep in the world’s oceans, it is commonly held that there is much more out there than we know about.
When treasure hunting, the rule is often finders keepers. This means that the individual or individuals who gain control of a sunken treasure are the rightful owners of that treasure. However, this is not always the case, legally. The Mercedes case in the US District Court in Florida in 2009 demonstrates how far this can go.
According to international law, non-commercial shipwrecks are the property of the sovereign. Commercial shipwrecks are usually property of the individual who finds it. This is based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity, wherein a sovereign keeps its property even though the ship is at the bottom of the ocean and even though the ship is found in international waters.
In 2007, US-based Odyssey Marine, a company traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange, discovered a shipwreck called the Mercedes in international waters. It is believed that the shipwreck occurred in 1804. Odyssey Marine pulled the ship up from the Ocean floor and discovered that the ship contained 17 tons of gold, a large sum. It is also reported that Odyssey Marine spent over $1 million on its discovery and salvage of the Mercedes.
As a result of the discovery, litigation ensued between the government of Spain and Odyssey Marine. Spain claimed that the ship was a non-commercial ship and therefore it was property of the government of Spain. Odyssey Marine countered that there was a lack of proof that the ship was non-commercial and even suggested that the coins belonged to various merchants engaged in commercial activity.
In the meantime, Marine Odyssey took the coins and placed them in a secret warehouse, pending the results of trial.
At trial, the government of Spain referred to Odyssey Marine as “21st Century Pirates.” The Spanish government even sent warships to interfere with Odyssey Marine’s explorations around the coastal waters of Spain.
After a lengthy court battle, the US District Court Judge ruled in favor of the government of Spain. The Court reasoned that Spain provided significant historical proof that the Mercedes was a non-commercial vessel and therefore property of the Spanish government. The Court also ruled that the Spanish government was entitled to compensation for the long, drawn-out litigation. Spain requested $3 million for its legal fees due to what it claimed was frivolous litigation. In the end, the judge ruled that Odyssey Marine is only obligated for $1 million.
The case was appealed and the ruling upheld. Odyssey Marine submitted a writ for a United States Supreme Court case but the Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.
In 2012, Odyssey Marine returned the Mercedes and its large cache of gold to the government of Spain.
Treasure hunting? There are laws related to treasure hunting on the high seas. For help with this and other maritime issues, contact the Kolodny law firm.