Who Owns a Shipwreck’s Sunken Treasure?
Private firms spend tens of millions of dollars to research and explore for sunken treasure. What percentage of found treasures should these firms be able to keep and sell? The Economist notes:
A UN convention in 2009 banned the sale of artefacts from wrecks over 100 years old and champions their conservation. But only 42 countries have ratified it (not including Britain and America).
The UN “champions their conservation” by “banning the sale of artefacts.” Really? Don’t these people watch Antiques Roadshow? Apparently not, because any AR fan knows that the “provenance,” (“from the French provenir, ‘to come from'”) of an antique adds immensely to its value. So any salvage company looking for sunken treasure knows that documenting the exact location and circumstances and a shipwreck adds to the value of the treasure recovered. Of course, where government claim anything ancient found underground or undersea belongs to the state, treasure hunting shifts to the informal sector and provenance can get left behind.
Is it true that anything ancient should somehow be owned by governments rather than the artifact entrepreneurs who research and discovered them? Economists Richard Stroup and Matthew Brown argue in “Selling Artifacts” that “the free market can advance archaeology if landowners have control of the relics they find.” The same argument applies offshore as well as onshore. Artifacts discovered on the ocean floor can advance archeology when ownership is secure.
National Geographic in “Finders Keepers? Not Always in Treasure Hunting” contrasts laws for U.K. and U.S. treasure hunters, noting “Nearly 90 percent of archaeological artifacts in the U.K. are found by amateur treasure hunters with metal detectors.” Documenting the past enlists the enthusiasms of tens of thousands of private treasure hunters:
A related program, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, is a voluntary project, managed by the British Museum, to record archaeological objects—not necessarily treasure—found by members of the public. So far, the British Museum has documented 800,000 finds, everything from gold and silver artifacts to bits of pottery and iron. Taken in context and seen together, they give a picture of where and how people lived in the past.
The relationship between archaeologists and metal detector hunters is, for the most part, downright amiable. Each year, the British Museum reaches out to some 177 metal-detecting clubs and judges the year’s “best” find.
So, can we take these lessons out to sea and encourage private artifact and treasure hunters to find some of the 3 million ship wrecks scattered across the world’s oceans (though most are likely in shallow waters in the general vicinity of dangerous reefs).
More on the ongoing debate is David Curman’s “Thar Be Treasure Here: Rights to Ancient Shipwrecks in International Waters–A New Policy Regime”. Curman explains:
With the discovery of the RMS Titanic in 1985, a flurry of academic activity arose addressing the ambiguities of the maritime laws concerning wrecks and salvage.2 A debate ensued over the ownership of new wrecks, which were being recovered from greater and greater depths.3 Treasure hunters4 who found the wrecks were placed at odds with governments that claimed title.5 In addition, a movement arose advocating the idea of “cultural property,” whereby these ancient wrecks belonged either to the whole of humanity or to the culture from whence they originated, mooting the issue of title for the finder.6 The most recent international attempt to overhaul the system, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,7 did little to resolve the ambiguity…
And, Curman notes, little progress has been made:
In the wake of the influx of new ideas into this antiquated area of law, little has changed. More than twenty years since the Titanic was found, we are no closer to a uniform treatment of wrecks that would alleviate the need for costly litigation.
Here is a Wall Street Journal article on “Sunken Treasures of the Arabia” a steamboat sunk near Kansas City and, once privately found and excavated, was turned into a private museum:
The museum, near the landing where the Arabia made its last stop on its final voyage, now has 20 employees and about 80,000 visitors annually from around the world, but it’s still very much of a family affair. The Hawleys kept their day jobs as refrigerator repairmen, but father Bob and son David are often at the museum to welcome visitors, and Florence Hawley, Bob’s wife, runs the gift shop.
Economics is about incentives. Federal policies should recognize that treasure hunters gain ownership as they mix their labor with the sunken treasures they discover.