Many childhood fantasies start to lose their allure once the realism of adulthood sets in. However, even as an adult, it’s hard to deny the appeal of stumbling upon a cache of sunken treasure. Finding valuables that were lost at sea surely would lead to fame and fortune … right?
Actually, the reality is a lot more complicated. “Finders keepers” rules don’t really apply to sunken treasure. While the thrill of discovery is still yours, you may not get to keep any tangible spoils from your find.
So, what really happens if you’re lucky enough to stumble across sunken treasure? Here’s the weird fascinating truth.
The Laws of Salvage
Once you’ve left the constraints of land and set out upon the sea, you’re subject to maritime law. And, if you happen to find sunken (or floating) treasure, maritime salvage laws typically govern what happens next.
In the United States, salvage laws date back to San Francisco in 1867. A British ship in the harbor was on fire, and a steam tug assisted the fire department in putting it out. The steam tug’s owner went to court to seek a reward from the British ship’s owners, and the first U.S. salvage award was granted. Today, salvage awards still offer financial compensation for those who successfully rescue ships and other items from peril at sea.
Salvage laws exist not just to govern found treasure, but also to incentivize people at sea to help each other out. If you discover a struggling or submerged ship or other property on the sea, and salvage it, you become the “salvor.” Meaning, you’re legally responsible for returning the ship or other property to its rightful owner, and the owner is legally responsible for fairly compensating you for your actions.
This compensation gives people a reason to help when they have no other connection to a struggling vessel. Usually, this compensation is a percentage of the value of what you salvaged. The harder or more dangerous the salvage process is, the greater the potential reward should be.
For salvage law to apply, you must be rescuing ships or goods from potential danger. (You can’t just “salvage” a boat that’s floating along like normal.) You also must be successful in rescuing the goods to get compensated. There’s no salvage payment for “I tried.”
Lastly, you need to contact the owner and attempt to return the salvaged goods in exchange for your reward. If you don’t make an effort to return what you salvaged, it becomes theft instead.
So, You’ve Found Sunken Treasure—Now What?
If you’ve found something valuable at sea or washed up on shore, the first thing to do is to salvage it carefully, minimizing damage. Some salvage jobs can be accomplished by amateurs, while high-risk endeavors (like saving a boat from stormy seas) are best left to the experts.
Once you have the salvaged goods, your next step is to try to find the owners—and to document the process. Keep written records of your efforts to return the goods, so you’ll be able to prove that you weren’t trying to steal what you found.
Sometimes, though, it’s not clear who actually owns the salvaged goods, as in the case of long-lost sunken treasure. In this case, international agreements will likely kick in. Countries may need to invoke international law to resolve disputes, such as whether the original owner, or the owner of the waters in which the lost treasure was discovered, gets to keep it.
Also, a difference exists between salvage and treasure hunting. If you stumbled upon sunken treasure purely by accident, you can be considered the salvor. But, if you went out looking for treasure in order to make money, salvage laws no longer apply. In that case, you must hope that what you find is so old or mysterious that the rightful owners will never come forward. And, if you made the discovery in territorial waters, be prepared to give up the treasure to the government in charge of those waters.
Whether you’re a treasure hunter or a salvor, and no matter where you discovered the bounty, know that you always need to report any treasure or valuables found at sea. If you keep it a secret and get caught, you could find yourself in legal hot water (pun intended).
One thing’s for sure—even if you do find sunken treasure, the chances of keeping it yourself are slim to none. But, in many situations, you may be able to use salvage law to get compensated for the find, which surely is better than nothing.