Finders keepers — the principle that keeps treasure hunters looking for riches at the bottom of the sea — has taken a broadside hit in court.
A federal appeals court ruled over the summer that Spain owns the wrecks of two Spanish warships that sank off the Virginia coast two centuries ago.
The treasure hunter at the center of the case plans to appeal to the Supreme Court this week. Some say that if the ruling is allowed to stand, it could put countless shipwrecks and perhaps billions in booty off limits.
“It really is a pretty abrupt turnabout to 300 years of traditional admiralty law,” said Ben Benson, the disappointed owner of Chincoteague-based Sea Hunt Inc., named for the old TV show.
Millions in Gold Coins
Traditionally, owners of sunken ships who didn’t look for them within a given amount of time gave up their rights to the ships, Benson said. This ruling changes that by saying that a shipwreck has to be explicitly abandoned in order for someone else to salvage it, he said.
At issue are the submerged wrecks of the frigates Juno and La Galga, which went down off Assateague Island on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Juno disappeared during a squall in 1802. According to some accounts, it carried as much as $500 million in coins and precious metals.
La Galga sank during a storm in 1750 a few miles away. It apparently had no treasure but may have been carrying horses that were ancestors to the wild ponies that wander Assateague Island today.
Benson found what he believes are the wrecks of the two ships, and he obtained salvage rights from the state of Virginia in return for 25 percent of any profits.
Spain Stepped In
In 1998, however, Spain claimed ownership of the vessels — the first such claims the country had made in hundreds of years. The U.S. government supported Spain, arguing that allowing the salvage of foreign warships would subject U.S. vessels to the same fate.
In July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that Virginia could not claim the ships unless they were expressly abandoned by Spain. The court cited a 1902 treaty between Spain and the United States that says the countries will provide the same protection to each other’s shipwrecks as they would to their own.
James Goold, a Washington lawyer who represented Spain, said that the ruling was not unprecedented and that the principle is contained in countless treaties involving the United States and other countries. Finders keepers applies only when property has been abandoned, and these ships weren’t abandoned, Goold said.
Goold noted that about 430 Spanish soldiers and their families went down with the Juno, and said that Spain did not want their final resting place to be disturbed for commercial purposes.
Irreplaceable Time Capsules
Spain also wanted to make sure the rules regarding wrecks are clear because modern technology has made it possible for treasure hunters to locate almost any sunken vessel, the lawyer said.
“These ships are also in many cases irreplaceable historic time capsules,” he said. “Too many of them have already been destroyed by treasure hunters.”
The ruling applies to ships that belonged to the Spanish government, not private ships, Goold said.