Chares Davis

Israel Antiquities Authority announced in early February the find of over 2,000 gold coins, the largest gold find ever in the western Mediterranean.  Members of a local dive club diving in the ancient harbor of the Caesarea National Park made the initial discovery. One diver saw what they initially thought was a toy coin for a game. However, when finding more they started to wonder if they were not in fact real. Diving in the National Park is open to the public but under controlled measures to prevent looting or damage to archaeological sites. Observers from the Antiquities Authority or specially trained members of the dive club must lead all dives. These divers knew exactly what they needed to do. The divers collected a few coins, marked the location the coins were, and headed back to shore. They immediately started the reporting procedures. The Israel Antiquities Authority dispatched a team of divers who returned to the site with the club divers.  The 2,000 coins recovers are thought to had been uncovered by a recent storm. Plan to explore the site further possibly looking for a ship wreck have been delayed due to poor weather.

Comments in general circulation news media have all sort of views on who these coins belong too. One often expressed notion is the children saying Finder-Keepers, Loser's Weeper's. But the real answer is far from that saying and even for experts it does not always turn out as expected. In this case Israeli law is clear, all antiquities belong to the state and removing them from a site can be a criminal offense. 

The rules are different depending on location and often even the type of ship and its use at the time of sinking. Florida was once considered the salvage capital of the world, with Key West being the center of the action. At a peak in the 1800's the federal court in Key West processed 700 salvage cases a year. To keep up with the work load and the urgent nature of salvage work at the time, the court was open seven days a week. A warehouse in Key West, now a shipwreck museum, had an observation tower to look for wrecks. Salvage operators would often leave a boat out on the reefs, so that they would get a head start looking for ships in trouble. If a ship was found the first priority was the safety of passengers and crew. In fact, it a salvage company was found as not doing as much as it could to protect human life they would forfeit part or all of what was salvaged. If the captain was still on-board then the salvage master and captain would negotiate for the recovery of the cargo and ship if possible. If no one was on board than the first to board her could file a claim. Current Florida laws state that shipwrecks found in the states waters and within 3 miles of the coast belong to the state. There is a procedure to apply to the state to recover items which if approved the state takes 25% of the recovered items.

England has a couple of different laws that govern recovering items from ship wrecks all based on the point that ships sunk within British waters belong to the Crown. Finders of wrecks have 28 days to report their finds to the Receiver of Wrecks. In many cases a salvage award may be granted. In May 2014, two divers were found guilty of removing items from 9 ship wrecks and fined over ₤63,000 for their actions.

Around the same time as gold was being found in Israel, the U.K. Parliament was hearing comments bashing the company Odyssey Marine and its contract to salvage the HMS Victory (1774). British PM Kevan Jones on 29 January 2015 raised concerns on the means a contract was reached to recover items from the HMS Victory. The ship was originally located in 1995 but no actions or disclosures were made. In 2008, Odyssey Marine approached the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and notified them they had located the wreck. In 2009, Odyssey Marine held a press conference stating that they had found the ship, had a belief that it was a treasure ship carrying gold and Odyssey Marine was filing salvage rights. MOD asserted that while the ship wreck is outside of British territorial waters the HMS Victory was a British Warship lost while on active duty. The Laws of Sovereignty protects the ship and it remains under MOD control. In 2012, the ship was gifted to a charity and Odyssey Marine was given a contract to salvage the ship which the MP is now questioning.

This is not the first time Odyssey Marine has brushed against the issue of Sovereignty. In 2007, the company “arrested” (made a salvage claim) a wreck found in 3,000 feet of water 100 miles from Europe. Over the next few years the recovered 17 tons of gold and silver at a cost of over $2.6 million. In 2011, the Spanish Government, joined by the U.S. Government in support of a 1905 treaty, filed a law suit against the company with the intent to seize the recovered items.  They proved to the court that the ship was the Frigate Mercedes. The Spanish government has on numerous occasions asserted its claim of sovereignty of ships. The court accepted the identification of the ship and two Spanish Air Force cargo planes flew the $500 million cargo to Spain. After lengthily negotiations the Spanish government reimbursed Odyssey Marine the cost of the containers the silver and gold was shipped in.

Many countries, U.K. and the U.S. among them follow the guidelines of the 2001 UNESCO convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The convention automatically protects anything under the sea for 100 years. The best advice for divers, is to find out the local laws and restrictions in the area they are diving so they know what to do if they find pile of gold.

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