Treasure Hunters Thwarted By Supreme Court

Tuesday, February 20, 2001
The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling that Spain owns the remains of two of its warships that sank off the Virginia coast hundreds of years ago, handing a setback to a treasure-hunting, maritime salvage company. Virginia asserted ownership of the shipwrecks of the Spanish Royal Naval vessels -- La Galga, which sank in 1750, and Juno, which went down in 1802. Virginia issued Sea Hunt, a salvage company, permits to recover artifacts from the wrecks. But Spain then filed a claim asserting ownership over the shipwrecks, citing a 1902 treaty between the United States and Spain protecting shipwrecks and military gravesites. Under the treaty, vessels may be abandoned only by express acts. A U.S. appeals court ruled last year that the two ships belonged to Spain. It said Sea Hunt could not show by clear and convincing evidence that Spain expressly abandoned the ships in international treaties in 1763 or in 1819. The Supreme Court rejected without any comment or dissent appeals by Virginia and by Sea Hunt, which located the vessels, asking the justices to hear the case and to overturn the ruling. La Galga, which is Spanish for "The Greyhound," was a 50-gun frigate which sank off the coast near the Virginia and Maryland border. Most of the crew and passengers reached land safely. When the ship's captain attempted to salvage items from the wreck, he found local residents already had begun looting the vessel. Juno, a 34-gun frigate, sank in the coastal waters off Assateague Island. At least 413 sailors, soldiers and civilians died. Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley said the case involved an important question of federal law. "At stake in this case is the proper standard of abandonment under admiralty law for ancient shipwrecks recently discovered and embedded in the submerged lands of a state," he said. Lawyers for Sea Hunt criticized the U.S. Justice Department for supporting Spain. They said the Justice Department and the court rulings provided Spain with "sovereign immunity" in salvage claims on wrecksites of long-lost, buried and forgotten Spanish vessels. But Spain's lawyers replied that the appeals court ruling correctly held that Spain was entitled to protect its vessels from commercial exploitation. The decision rested on "multiple, independent and settled principles of domestic and international law" governing sovereign vessels and military gravesites, they said. "The foreign policy implications of this case counsel against further judicial proceedings," Spain's lawyers told the high court in urging that the appeals be denied. - (Reuters)
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