Who Owns Lost Ships?
The sidewheel steamship Central America
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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."
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 British sloop HMS De Braak
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.
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
The luxury steamboat Lady Elgin
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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© | Updated November 2000