Forgive me if this is old news, but I’m just hearing about the legal dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. and the government of Spain. In case anyone else has missed this story so far, the dispute is about who owns $500 million in gold and silver coins that Odyssey Marine retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. I don’t know which side has the better legal argument, but if it’s Spain — backed by our own Department of Justice — then it seems like a real miscarriage of justice to me.
Here are the basic facts:
Odyssey Marine is a Tampa company in the business of finding and salvaging treasure and historical artifacts from shipwrecks. To do this, Odyssey spends millions of dollars every year, first researching records of shipwrecks to identify high-value salvage candidates, and then searching the ocean floor with high-tech equipment to find the ships. Odyssey Marine’s legal claim to the treasure in this case is by right of salvage under international maritime law. (I’m no admiralty lawyer, but I think all parties agree that if the shipwreck in question had belonged to a private citizen rather than a government, Odyssey Marine would be entitled to keep it all.) Odyssey Marine’s moral claim, it seems to me, is quite Lockean — namely, that Odyssey Marine expended great labor to recover the treasure that would otherwise have remained at the bottom of the ocean.
Spain, on the other hand, claims the treasure on the ground that it is believed to have come from a Peruvian military ship (the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes) at a time when Spain ruled Peru. (Odyssey apparently contests this factual allegation, and calls the shipwreck by the name “Black Swan.”) That would make Spain the sovereign, and according to Spain, admiralty law dictates that property from a military vessel cannot be claimed by the international right of salvage, and instead reverts back to the sovereign. I wish I could say what the moral theory behind this claim is, particularly in light of the twist that Spain ruled Peru at the time by conquest. Indeed, the government of Peru has also filed a claim, saying that Spain owns the wreck of the ship and all of its military contents, but Peru owns the coins, which were “mined, refined, and minted by Peruvians in Peru.”
Our Department of Justice is backing Spain, which surprises some observers who seem to think a U.S. government entity would be expected to favor U.S. citizens rather than a fellow member of the government club. Personally, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that the Department of Justice is in favor of a very strong notion of sovereign immunity, even for other sovereigns. But what do Reasonable Minds think? Among other things,does anyone think Odyssey Marine’s moral claim depends in any way on whether the treasure was carried on a military vessel?
Actually, this seems like a good opportunity to try out a relatively new WordPress feature: Internet polling.
The government of the UK seems to me to have taken a much more defensible position than the Spanish/U.S. position: The UK has an agreement with Odyssey Marine that harmonizes the private and public interests, so that Odyssey Marine recovers treasure and artifacts on the UK government’s behalf and thereby earns a substantial commission. Good old voluntary agreement! Can the law resolve the competing interests as fairly?