Treasure Coins - Some Thoughts on Ownership
The case of the Odyssey Marine Exploration crew vs the Spanish government over legal possesion of coins and artifacts from the sunken treasure ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes has received it's first written judicial recommendations recently and the word is the coins should be returned to Spain. Considered in the ruling was an acceptence of the notition that Spain never expressly surrendered ownership, which got me to thinking.
If I were to leave something laying around in harsh conditions, left to the elements with no regard for the items security - have I not, in essense, relinquished ownership through abandonment? This is how I see a sunken ship. If the owner of the ship, or owners of cargo which was aboard that ship have made no efforts to find or reclaim their property in over 200 years, I should think they have expressed an abandonment or dereliction of their former property.
Once a company has made an investment in time and effort to reclaim this abandoned property, they have expressed an interest in ownership through their actions. I don't consider this to be theft and I don't think a former owner can step up once the items have reached the surface and say "Give me my stuff!" without even paying for the extensive cost incurred in raising the material.
All theory aside, the reality is that treasure hunting has come to a fork in the road. If a treasure hunter cannot obtain rights to property before the exploration begins, then they will not be financially able to explore profitably. These government claims may end in a result that no one wants, an end to treasure hunting and reclamation of coin hoards and sunken treasure. Firms like Odyssey Marine Exploration, if denied their finds, will soon cease to exist or change their business plan to being exploration for hire, with payment in advance.
It's an interesting dilema and one which various courts will be considering for a long time to come. In the meantime, Check out the article on the cover of this months World Coin News and express your opinion on the subject with a comment to this posting or by voting in our NumisMaster poll.