All that glitters...
"Finders keepers" may be a popular homily, but it does not necessarily apply to treasure hunting or underwater salvage.
Gerald Klein was a conscientious, hard-working family man who eked out a living as a truck driver while his wife tried to supplement the family income running a modest seafood diner in Perrine, Florida.
One day in 1978, while diving for lobsters to provide fresh food for the diner, Klein chased a fish into a long, submerged tube. Upon closer inspection, the tube turned out to be a ship's cannon, and the sea bottom was littered with artifacts. Klein retrieved a few bottles to put on display in the diner.
Frequent comments by curious customers prodded Gerald Klein to investigate the possibility of filing claim to the wreck site. Hiring two attorneys, David McIntosh of Miami, a Coast Guard attorney with federal law experience, and David Horan, an attorney for famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher, Klein went to court.
Appointed by the state of Florida to head up an archaeological expedition to the site, and granted custodianship of recovered artifacts, Klein's legal investment seemed to be paying off...for five days.
Then Rebecca Donnellan, a representative from Washington, won a temporary restraining order for the federal government after she pointed out that the galleon was found within the National Park Service‘s Biscayne National Monument.
After the hearing, the court reversed its original decision, ruling that federal Admiralty laws (which will be discussed below) do not supersede those of the National Park Service.
Klein lost his case. He also lost his investment. Heavy legal fees left him thousands of dollars in debt, and his fishing boat was put up for sale to help pay the bills. Even the few bottles and belt buckles he had previously salvaged from the wreck site were confiscated by the government.
Rebecca Donnellan argued further that Klein could be prosecuted for initially removing the artifacts from the site, but the court drew the line there and pointed out that Klein had been completely open and honest in his pursuit. There was no indication of criminal intent.
But Gerald Klein had the last laugh. Because of the financial hardship imposed by the hard-line federal ruling, he refused to divulge the location of the wreck.
It is reported that at one point during the hearing, federal spokesmen, frustrated after days of unproductive searching, said, "Your honor, there is no wreck!" To which the judge replied, "Then what the hell are we doing here?"
It is little wonder that there are large numbers of weekend soldiers of fortune prodding the sea bottom around Florida without notifying the state or the federal government. While the state of Florida is not unique in its protective salvage stance, it is the most widely publicized because of the legend hoards of submerged and buried wealth reputed to garland its shores.
Needless to say, a great deal of mythology has grown around the actual historical facts, and there is probably nowhere near the amount of gold, silver and jewels popularized by local myth.
For many years, the state has maintained that it owns all of the treasure within its territorial waters, and that in spite of that, it is willing to give 75% of the intrinsic value to the finder, keeping only 25% for its archives.
The actual evaluation becomes largely subjective upon recovery of the artifacts, depending largely upon the unique significance of each article. Often, gold and silver are returned to the salvor, while objects of less intrinsic value are retained by the state for their historical value.
Within the claimed boundaries of the state of Florida (three miles into the Atlantic Ocean and three leagues into the Gulf of Mexico), contracted salvors are guaranteed protection by officers of the Florida Marine Patrol and Florida Highway Patrol. But outside those limits in international waters, the laws of nature take over!
Modern day pirates
Veteran salvor Mel Fisher was working a claim in deep water, and had to pull anchor to go ashore briefly. Leaving a small, manned boat at the site both as a marker as well as to maintain his rights, Fisher was unaware of the intrusion of another boat waiting for the opportunity to drop anchor.
The larger boat kept trying to force its way into position while the stalwart occupant of the little boat kept maneuvering in the way. The confrontation grew hostile, and before the foray ended, shotgun blasts were fired from both vessels. Fortunately, no one was hit, but the episode punctuates the dangers of deep water salvage.
The laws covering salvage are in many cases obscure, dated by the spirit of their original intent. There is the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906, the Offshore Submerged Lands Act, and the Admiralty Law. Redefinitions of earlier laws continue to amend the classical legislation.
In a 1973 case, the Supreme Court redefined the legal boundaries for the purposes of offshore oil exploration and subsequent drilling. Pressure from the oil companies apparently worked, and the venerable three-league protection in the Atlantic was reduced to three miles. A subsequent result was that virtually every previously-protected wreck site was now in international waters!
Probably no law has had so much attention and debate as the Admiralty Law. According to this early legislation, once a boat goes down, other vessels may salvage its cargo. Much of the spirit of this law was to encourage the safe return of goods as well as survivors. Peril was a key word in the interpretation. But after several centuries of submersion, devastated by teredo worms, coral encrustation, and abrasion by sand, peril is hardly a factor.
Still, potential salvors invoke the Admiralty claim, knowing full well that a state like Florida is enjoined against participating in international law, and if they win this point they must be granted salvage rights to the wreck site
Mel Fisher tied up a large number of Florida wrecks under this legal provision which went under review by the Fifth US Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A ruling by that court granted Fisher's firm, Treasure Salvors, Incorporated, and its subsidiary, Armada Research Corporation, custody of several million dollars' worth of artifacts recovered from a 1622 galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, discovered in l97l off the Florida Keys.
The firms had argued successfully that the Atocha was public property under both the Antiquities Act and the Abandoned Property Act.
Curtis Peterson, former conservator with Florida's Division of Archives and History, reflected on the decision: "Large corporations like Mel Fisher's group are investment companies. They seek high publicity to keep demand for their stock up to sponsor their ventures. Corporate subsidiaries split and resplit, leasing equipment from Treasure Salvors. Then, when the subsidiary goes into receivership, showing no assets, the parent corporation is still solvent".
But it’s big business, and it's all perfectly legal.
When a claim is established in international waters, it is frequently a good idea to register it with the nearest government jurisdiction. So it was when Seaquest International of Chicago located the rich Spanish galleon, the Concepcion.
Although the actual site was found in international waters as defined by both American and British law, the Dominican Republic did not agree. Seaquest representatives knew it would be better to compromise, and agreed to pay taxes of approximately 50% on the assessed value of the recovered artifacts.
In return, they received active armed protection by a Dominican gunboat which proved necessary on more than one occasion. Additionally, the Dominican government reserved the right to choose whichever artifacts it might wish to display in their national museum, but they would pay for them. Millions of dollars worth of historic artifacts are now in possession of the Dominican Republic.
And more sunken treasure
Another valuable wreck off the coast of Louisiana has returned Aztec ceramics, trade goods, and considerable gold and silver from the Spanish merchant vessel.
Assistant Secretary Steve Perry of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism was quoted as saying this appears to be "the most exciting archaeological find in Louisiana, and may be one of the most significant in the Gulf region!"
Under Louisiana law, the state receives 25% of the value of the recovered artifacts, but the burden of recovery must be financed by the salvors.
And what of the future of treasure hunting near the coasts of the United States? Only time and the courts will tell. Certainly, many weekend treasure hunters are still busy at work, spirits undampened by Fisher's Admiralty claim or any other legislation.