27 March 2009

International Booty Battle

I can think of a lot of reasons to pay attention to international booty battles. In this case the reason is archaeological. As MSNBC reported Tuesday, treasure hunters have salvaged the Spanish warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk by a British vessel in 1804, and carted off $500 million worth of gold and silver coins to a warehouse in Florida. When Spain discovered what was going on, they sent a warship to board and detain the salvors, led by a Greg Stemm, a bearded American with a fondness for turtlenecks.

It’s an interesting case from the legal perspective: under international law, objects carried on a merchant vessel are fair game for salvage, but those on a warship continue to belong to the nation-state. Stemm, however, argues that the coins were being carried by the warship under contract to a third party, and thus were never really government property. The case is currently in US District Court in Florida.

As usually happens when I read about archaeology in the news, the whole case degenerates into ambiguity and contradiction the more I think about it. Greg Stemm runs one of these private salvage outfits, which don’t quite merit the word ‘archaeology’ since their point is to haul up giant piles of precious metals and sell them to coin collectors. I dislike the way that salvage types hide their quest for personal enrichment under a mantle of scientific earnestness.

The government of Spain, naturally, feels aggrieved at Stemm’s discovery:
"The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.
This would be fine if the artifacts in this case didn’t have such a sinister side. Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes got full of silver and gold because the Spanish crown enslaved millions of Indians and worked them to death in the mines of Potosí. It is true that slavery and imperialism are major parts of Spain’s “cultural patrimony”, but what the government is appealing to is simply generic, decontextualized nationalism. Spain wants to launder dirty money through the bank of noble principles: an oblivious move at best and a cynical one at worst.

Stemm, of course, has offered to “share” the booty:
“We suggested, ‘You know what? Let’s do a split here. You should have all the cultural artifacts.’ We said, if this is a Spanish shipwreck, we think that the cultural artifacts should go to Spain. We just think we should be properly rewarded for spending the money, doing great archaeology.”
This is an amusing f-you gesture: we’ll give you the ‘cultural artifacts’ and keep the coins. This means what? Nails? Bits of wood and pottery? Some ship’s fittings? He has a good point, in that Spain wouldn’t probably give a damn about the archaeology of the wreck if $500m wasn’t involved. (I love his feeling that "great archaeology" deserves multi-million dollar payoffs. Sounds like a new lobbying agenda for AIA and SAA.)

The archaeological heritage of the ocean is vast and nearly untouched, and this case points out the need for better education and policy moves around salvage in international waters. I don’t particularly care if private interests excavate a shipwreck – especially because most governments have no plans to spend the millions of dollars required to do good underwater archaeology. But they should record their finds well and publish them in a timely way – something that I seriously doubt Stemm and his team will do. (Though I would love to be proved wrong.) It would also be much preferable to see salvors getting a percentage of the proceeds from shipwreck salvage, with the balance going to an international fund for heritage conservation.

Treasure ships like the Mercedes carried blood money from the holocaust that Spain wrought on the peoples of the Americas, and whoever recovers the money should treat it a such. My ideal solution to the legal wrangle? Stemm and Spain both take 10% of the proceeds from the ship, and the balance put into a reparations fund for development and education in indigenous communities in Latin America.

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