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The Central America The sidewheel steamship Central America
Who Owns Lost Ships?
Part 2 | Back to Part 1

The struggle for ownership of the 19th-century sidewheel steamer Central America is a case in point. Carrying 21 tons of gold from the California gold rush, the ship went down in a storm off South Carolina in 1857. A treasure-hunting consortium discovered and claimed the wreck in 1987, and a federal district court backed up their claim under the law of finds, declaring that the marine insurance companies who underwrote the loss of the shipment had lost all commercial records of doing so and had thus effectively abandoned the ship. But a court of appeals reversed the decision, ruling that one could not lightly presume abandonment, particularly since the technology needed to find and retrieve goods from the wreck had only recently come into existence. In the end, citing the time, effort, and money the salvors had sunk into the retrieval, and the care they had taken in preserving artifacts (which included such delicate goods as cigars and contemporary newspapers), the appellate court applied the law of salvage to the case and awarded the salvors 90 percent of the gold bullion and coins pulled from the wreckage.

Salvage vs science
The Central America decision irked many marine archeologists, who pointed out that not a single archeological report has come out of the operation. This is true of most excavations by salvors, says Toni Carrell, a marine archeologist who chairs the Advisory Council for Underwater Archeology.

"If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of good archeological work is published results," she says. "But where are the reports? Where are the results?" The only salvor's report that has even slightly approached a real archeological summary, she says, was one published on a wreck salvaged off Saipan. The goals of research and archeology simply differ too greatly from those of commerical exploitation. "We archeologists know we must go slowly, while salvors must work quickly, because they've got investors backing them who want to see a return through the sale of artifacts," she says. For her part, Carrell sees no room for compromise: "There's no way that archeologists and commercial treasure salvors can work together. When the driving motivation is profit rather than knowledge, archeology always suffers."

DeBraak The British sloop HMS De Braak

Indeed, many professional archeologists deem salvors little more than tomb robbers, a feeling that poorly executed salvage operations only fuel. The most notorious of such operations was the salvage of the HMS De Braak, a 16-gun British sloop wrecked off the coast of Delaware in 1798. After discovering the wreck using side-scan sonar in 1984, a salvage group, Sub-Sal, Inc., secured salvage rights and proceeded to excavate the wreck using a crane, lifting it to the surface and letting artifacts of inestimable historical value spill overboard. They reportedly threw non-glittering items, including an extremely rare 18th-century Royal Navy stove, back into the sea. And they illegally disposed of human remains and violated other federal and state laws. All told, one writer deemed the excavation "one of the worst maritime archeological disasters in American history."

The De Braak debacle helped lead to the passing of the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act (ASA), a 1985 law that enabled states to claim ownership of wrecks located up to three nautical miles offshore. Such wrecks had to be embedded in submerged lands or coralline formations owned by the state or rest within areas included in (or deemed eligible for inclusion in) the National Register of Historic Places.


Lady Elgin The luxury steamboat Lady Elgin
The ASA also applies to inland waterways such as rivers and lakes, which initially spelled bad news for Harry Zych. A Chicago-based salvor, Zych discovered the remains of the Lady Elgin, a double-decked luxury steamboat that collided with a lumber schooner in Lake Michigan during a gale in 1860, killing about 380 passengers, including many of Wisconsin's Democratic elite. (Historians say the wreck contributed to Abraham Lincoln's victory in that year's presidential election; a Republican, Lincoln carried 56 percent of the Wisconsin vote.) After the ASA came into force, the State of Illinois tried to claim ownership of the wreck, but Zych countered by showing that the owners—the CIGNA insurance company, successor to a company that had paid claims on the wreck—had never abandoned the Lady Elgin. A federal district court agreed, and in May 1999, after a 10-year court battle, Zych gained salvage rights to the wreckage and its associated goods.

While some have unsuccessfully challenged the ASA's constitutionality, the act faced its gravest challenge in the recent case of the Brother Jonathan. A Gold Rush steamer that sank off Crescent City, California in 1865 with a cargo of gold, the Brother Jonathan was found in 1993 by a salvage company, Deep Sea Research, Inc. (DSR). The State of California claimed it as an abandoned shipwreck in its waters, but like Zych, DSR convinced the courts that the wreck's insurers, who had transferred their ownership interest to DSR, had never abandoned the ship, and thus the Brother Jonathan belonged to DSR. When the state challenged this ruling, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that federal courts have jurisdiction in admiralty cases involving shipwrecks and other artifacts not actually in a state's possession. In March 1999, the two sides settled, with DSR getting 80 percent of the valuable gold coinage pulled from the wreck.

Continue: A paper tiger?

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