Are Finders Keepers Under the Sea? What You Need to Know About Finding Shipwrecked Treasures

It may seem like a tale of fiction, yet ordinary citizens and organized treasure hunters may discover the riches of underwater treasures. A simple day at sea can turn into an adventure when the remains of a ship wreck are discovered. However, before the discoverers claim the remains of the shipwreck as their own, it is important for the discoverers to understand their rights and responsibilities concerning their discovery.
The Law of Salvage
The law of salvage encourages those on the sea to help one another. Accordingly, a person who helps a vessel that is in trouble is often entitled to a reward for risking his own safety to help his fellow seamen. The law of salvage may apply if there is a vessel in trouble or if a ship is already submerged in the water. The person who discovers the troubled vessel and helps to recover its passengers or contents is known as the salvor. The salvor has the responsibility to surrender the ship and its contents to the vessel’s lawful owner as long as the owner compensates the salvor for his or her actions. If the owner refuses to compensate the salvor then the salvor must surrender the ship or its contents to the United States Marshal and seek a maritime lien against the owner. 
The amount of the salvage award is based on several factors including:
·         The degree of risk undertaken by the salvor;
·         The difficulty of the rescue or recovery operation; and
·         The value of the goods and / or vessel that are recovered.
Typically, the salvage award is approximately 10 -25% of the total value of property that the salvor recovers. However, in certain circumstances the percentage of the value awarded to the salvor may be as high as 50% of the total value of property recovered.
The Law of Finds
Sometimes, a different set of laws apply when a shipwreck is discovered. If the shipwreck has been submerged for a period of years during which the vessel’s legal owners have not been actively trying to retrieve its contents then the law of finds may apply.
A discoverer who finds a shipwreck pursuant to the law of finds is entitled to the full value of all of the goods that are recovered. Since the owner of the vessel has given up trying to recover the shipwreck, the discoverer is deemed to have full rights to the content. This is different than the law of salvage which views the discoverer as one who recovers the contents of the shipwreck for the owner and is therefore entitled to a percentage but not all of the value of the goods recovered.
Exceptions to the Law of Finds
The United States passed the Abandoned Shipwrecked Act in 1987. That Act gives title of all shipwrecks within U.S. waters to the United States and not to the discoverer of the shipwreck. U.S. territorial waters extend at least three miles from the coast line. Further, if the remains of a United States or a foreign government’s ship are recovered then the law of finds does not apply since it is generally accepted that governments never abandon the search and recovery efforts for their own vessels.
It can be exciting and profitable to discover a previously hidden treasure under the sea. However, discoverers should be aware of their potential awards and their responsibilities when they uncover a shipwreck treasure.
 
 

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

Additional Maritime Law Articles

Search LawInfo's Maritime Law Resources

Lead Counsel Rated Law Firm

Click Here to Learn More