Shipwreck Treasure's Fate a Toss-Up, Experts Say

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A Clandestine Cargo?

Odyssey, which is headquartered in Tampa, announced earlier this month that it had found a ship that had sunk in the Atlantic Ocean with a cargo of gold and silver coins.

On May 21 the company announced in a statement it would withhold the name of the ship because of security concerns.

"Based on past experience with other shipwrecks, we have found that putting out information about the identity of shipwrecks ... results in wild speculation about values, ownership rights and scores of other issues," the statement said.

Odyssey said it had recovered 17 tons of coins and that the coins were brought into the United States with a valid export license granted by the country from which they were exported. They were also imported legally pursuant to U.S. law, Odyssey said.

The statement did not say what country had issued the export license.

"Constitution of the Ocean"

Goold, who has represented Spain in other cases involving salvage rights to Spanish ships, said he could not respond to questions about whether Spain has instructed him to begin legal proceedings against Odyssey.

He notified Odyssey of Spanish laws and requested information about the Black Swan on May 18, but to no avail.

(Goold also has represented the National Geographic Society, which is headquarted in Washington, D.C., on legal matters. National Geographic News is part of the Society.)

In the May 21 statement, Odyssey said its work on the ship was done in accordance with relevant laws, including the Law of the Sea Convention.

None of Odyssey's work on the Black Swan had been done in waters subject to Spanish jurisdiction, the statement also noted.

The Law of the Sea Convention was enacted by the United Nations in 1982 and applies to shipwrecks found on the high seas, which are outside the jurisdiction of any government.

The convention, supported by 150 nations, recognizes countries' ownership of their sunken vessels.

It has been called the "constitution of the ocean," said Peter Oppenheimer, an attorney with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of General Counsel for International Law.

The United States has not signed the convention but does recognize most of its provisions, Oppenheimer said.

One such provision states that "artifacts found aboard any shipwreck shall be preserved or disposed of for the benefit of mankind as a whole [with] particular regard being paid to the preferential rights of the State or country of origin. ..."

The Ships Fate

Bass of Texas A&M wondered what might become of other artifacts besides the coins aboard the Black Swan.

"If it's a well-preserved ship of a particular period, every part of it would be important," Bass said.

"We know it has coins. Is it just going to be abandoned? Is that treating history the way it should be?"

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