In one sense, the question is moot. The sea owns lost ships, of course. Tens of
thousands of shipwrecks litter the beds of oceans, lakes, and other bodies of
water. Some of them have rested there for thousands of years and will likely
remain there forever. But when human beings find and covet a wreck—for its
historical value, its diving possibilities, its gold—then the question
suddenly becomes rabidly contentious.
Compared to a handful of recent celebrated cases, the ownership debate
over La Salle's ship La Belle is positively tame. There are only two
parties involved—the State of Texas, which excavated the ship and
has preserved and studied its artifacts, and the government of France,
which claims ownership of its famed explorer's lost vessel. And though
the U.S. Department of State has been drawn in as mediator, the two
parties will likely come to an understanding without too much fuss.
"We have an agreement with the French that we will sit down and resolve
the issue," says Larry Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical
Commission, which excavated the wreck (see Explore the Shipwreck).
A Spanish galleon similar to the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
In many other cases of disputed ownership, however, only protracted and costly
court battles have settled the issue. Such battles rage on, some working their way
right up to the U.S. Supreme Court and many remaining unresolved to this day.
Indeed, there is not and likely never will be a simple answer to the question of
who owns lost ships.
For as long as people have had the means to explore shipwrecks, the maritime
"law of finds" has held sway, at least until recently. If you found a wreck, you
were welcome to it and anything it held. For one thing, you got there first. For
another, who was going to stop you? For a third, if you were lucky, admiralty courts—those that deal with maritime law—might even back you up.
Mel Fisher, a Florida treasure hunter who discovered and salvaged the 17th-century
Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, found this to be the case. Wrecked
off the Florida Keys in 1622, the Atocha bore gold, armaments, and other
artifacts valued in the millions of dollars. U.S. federal courts ruled that Spain
had long ago renounced any claim to title in the centuries since the ship went down
in a hurricane, and neither the State of Florida nor the U.S. government could claim
ownership: The wreck lay outside Florida state waters, and no law allowed the U.S. to
claim ownership of artifacts resting in international waters.
The Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria
The law of finds has held sway even in cases concerning recent wrecks. In 1993, the
salvor John Moyer filed an admiralty "arrest" of the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria,
which sank after a collision in 1956. (An arrest is a claim of ownership that precludes
other claims until it is resolved in court.) A federal district court upheld Moyer's
claim, noting that the insurance companies that had become the liner's owner after
paying insurance claims had made no attempt to salvage the wreck, which lay in a known
location easily accessible with modern salvage technology. As a result, Moyer gained
title to the ship's valuable Italian mosaics.
The law of finds pertains to abandoned shipwrecks, but for unabandoned wrecks—those
whose owners still claim ownership—the "law of salvage" has generally applied. Salvage
law, originally designed to encourage ships to come to the aid of other ships in distress—and any people or property they hold—offers salvors compensation for services
rendered, whether aiding a stricken vessel or salvaging an historic shipwreck.