On May 18, 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration flew 17 tons of salvaged gold and silver coins to a secure facility in Florida. Now, five years later, U.S. courts have forced Odyssey to hand over this treasure to the Spanish government. What is the Black Swan Heist?
Odyssey & the Mysterious Black Swan Project?
Odyssey is a publicly-held marine salvage company. In other words, it’s a treasure hunting firm. Back in 2007, Odyssey completed a top-secret salvage expedition known as the Black Swan Project, uncovering some 17 tons of coins and other artifacts in the process. The operation is believed to have cost two million dollars and taken numerous years to complete.
Almost immediately, the Spanish government filed a claim on the treasure, arguing that the Black Swan was actually a Spanish vessel known as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804. Five years of court battles and drama followed. At one point, WikiLeaks even got involved. A secret cable revealed the American ambassador to Spain offered to help the Spanish government recover the treasure from Odyssey. In exchange, Spain was asked to compel a museum in Madrid to return a $20 million painting to a California family that claimed it had been stolen by the Nazis.
The Black Swan Heist?
In September 2011, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Odyssey in a highly questionable decision. In February 2012, Justice Clarence Thomas, acting on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court, declined to hear the case. As a result, Odyssey is being forced to hand over the Black Swan treasure to the nearly-broke Spanish government. And in a slap to the face, the firm won’t receive any compensation for its work (leading many treasure hunters to suggest Odyssey return the Black Swan treasure to the ocean and make the Spanish government pay for its own recovery).
I don’t want to get into the minutia of the case here. The international laws governing shipwreck salvaging are murky and highly tilted toward governments over individuals. Suffice it to say the Black Swan wreck was never conclusively proven to be the Mercedes. And even if it was the Mercedes, that means that the vast majority of the coins were owned by merchants and not the Spanish government. Spain claims it had reimbursed the merchants back in the early 1800s and thus, was entitled to the treasure (interestingly enough, it has yet to provide any proof of this compensation).
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
From my point of view, this is a short-sighted decision that will have long-term ramifications (something I discuss in my novel Chaos). Going forward, treasure hunters will have little to no incentive to report their findings to the world. The black market for antiquities will grow. The treasure hunting field will attract a greater number of reckless and unskilled individuals. Thus, salvage work will be done with more haste and less care.
As I see it, the Black Swan treasure falls under the homesteading principle. There are three possible owners of the Black Swan wreck. The dead (or their descendants), the “community” (supposedly represented by the Spanish government), or Odyssey. First, the dead merchants can no longer claim ownership. In addition, the merchants basically stole the metal for the coins from the Incas making it extremely unlikely the original owners can ever be traced (although some Peruvians are making their own claim). Second, the Spanish Culture Ministry has no legitimate claim to the treasure. Governments cannot legitimately own private property, since everything they have (including tax dollars) has been, in effect, taken at the point of a gun.
Overall, I would argue no one owned the Black Swan wreck prior to discovery. Odyssey, on the other hand, is the rightful owner of its own labor. By salvaging the Black Swan, the company added its labor to the treasure and thus, became its rightful owner.
I’m a treasure hunter. Yet I also consider myself an amateur archaeologist. As such, I’m very sympathetic to the concept of “historical preservation.” However, I don’t think that “stealing” artifacts from the treasure hunters who recover them is the best way to achieve that goal. Instead, I tend to favor the idea of privatizing archaeology.
“In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.” – David Meyer, Is Treasure Hunting Immoral
I realize I’m in the minority on this issue. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Freedom has vastly improved the lot of mankind over time. I believe it could do the same thing for the field of archaeology.