The Derelict Ship Wreckonomy Under Maritime Law: The law of Finds

By Jyoti Rani and Vikram Choudhary


When the unsinkable ship titanic sank, it took away many lives and goods worth 9.5 million.[1]Have you ever wondered how much lost goods the humongous oceans might be holding? The maritime abyss is home to three million shipwrecks that have not yet been found. The concern is who claims the goods inside these wrecks after discovery? When disputed histories& lawsare involved, the priority issue becomes even more perplexing. For instance, a global fight over the $17 billion in treasure found aboard a sunken Spanish galleon from the colonial era erupted in 2015 when an international team found it.[2]

A distinct set of rules are applied in case of found shipwrecks, ‘The law of finds’ and‘the law of salvage’. The “finders’ keepers” procedure in such discovery is muddled by domestic and international rules, or by lacuna of it. This article will shed light on the protocol with special reference to the law of finds, whether the finder is a keeper or not?


The oceans and shorelines are covered with thousands of old shipwrecks that have been discovered to contain millions of pieces of riches.

Lost properties in marine can be of various shapes, such as a ship wreckage floating on the current, whale’s vomit having a chunk of ambergris washed up on the seashore, or a hefty quantity of gold doubloons in the sand. In order to get compensated for their efforts based on the value of salvaged goods and the degree of risk, salvage companies have made an effort to recover these shipwrecks. The Black Swan Project, with it’s estimated $500 million a worth of gold treasure, is considered to have found more gold than any other gold treasure in history. Spanish vessel ‘Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes’, in 1804 sank off the coast of Portugal, was the site of the discovery founded by Mr. Mei Fisher which sunk in 1622 and was loaded with treasures, off the coast of Florida during a salvage effort.

More than “2,580” gold coins weighing 7.5 kg were discovered at the location on the shore of Caesarea in February 2015 during a salvage operation.It is necessary to comprehend three general facts about the newly found property.

1. If the item belonged to someone, did they ever dispose of it?

2. Whether it was found in a state’s exclusive economic zone?

3. Was the object submerged in the ocean floor?

These inquiries will help the finder decide either to avow a claim to the discovered property.


The ownership of shipwrecks discovered in international waters has been the subject of numerous legal issues because the maritime regulations now in effect are unclear. The main players in the ownership issue are the salvage company,finders, and the nation that is connected toshipwrecks. Currently, these are governed by Law of Finds,Law of Salvage and global Convention.


People on the water are encouraged to assist one another under the law of salvage. As a result, a person who assists a troubled vessel is frequently entitled to compensation for putting his own safety at risk to aid a fellow seaman. As long as the owner pays the salvor for their activities, the salvor is required to turn over the ship and all of its cargo to the vessel’s legitimate owner. If the owner won’t pay, the salvor will have to turn over the ship or its cargo to the US Marshal and file a maritime lien against the owner.

A Salvor must prove-

(1) There must be a maritime risk to the property.

(2) The salvor must willingly try the action.

(3) At least a portion of the property must be recovered by the salvor.

The law of salvage involves restrictions like not being consistently applied when determining the title. Different countries’ interpretations of the law of salvage have led to numerous confrontations.Discrepanciesamong the nation of origin, discoverer, or third party with a stronger claim result from operationof this concept.


The law grants the complete ownership to the person who discovered the shipwreck if a vessel or piece of property is abandoned and there is no owner. The old maritime law theory “Law of Finds” is a lesser developed law and established during a time when nature still produced a lot of valuable goods which were free of possession from the time they were originated. As a result, the “keeper” is the first finder to assert possession. The Law of Finds, however, has issues with man-made property. It is necessary to ascertain if the owner had explicitly abandoned found property as the law regards a piece of property as having returned to its natural form if it has been abandoned.

Under the law, the determination of abandonment is a critical issue, the burden of proof stays on the salvor to establish with “strong and compelling proof” that the property is not owned and abandoned in order to assert the title is onerous. If the recovered property is not abandoned, the law of salvage is in effect, and the salvager is only entitled to an award and not the property’s title. In exceptional circumstances, the passage of time will suffice, but only if the property’s owner doesn’t show up to claim it. This was the result of the 1978 treasure claim for the sunk in 1622 Spanish galleon ATOCHA[3]. The Law of Finds approved the finder’s entitlementto the treasure cause Spain did not proclaim its ownership interest during the legal proceedings.

The wreck of cargo ship CENTRAL AMERICA transporting gold valued around $1,219,189,went down in a storm 160 miles east of South Carolina in 1857.Divers conducting search operations found it in 1988.[4]. Because they had settled claims for the stolen gold in 1857, a number of insurance companies claimed ownership of the cargo after its discovery. Court proceedings established that there was a failure on the part of insurers to take any affirmative action to abandon their title, in spite of the passage of 131 years and their lack of effort to find the lost gold. The court directed additional proceedings so that the salvagers could follow their entitlement for a salvage reward after the court rejected the finders’ claim of ownership.


  1. The R.M.S. Titanic Act,1986

Themost recognizedwreckage in maritime history is that of the R.M.S. Titanic. In 1985, a squad ofscientists found the Titanic, which laid 2.5 miles below the North Atlantic surface.[5] The enthusiasm for salvaging the Titanic soared to new heights. Congress in answer passed ‘The R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986’. Thegoal was to promote global arrangement on the conservation of the Titanic wreck site and to forbid its salvage until such time as global consensus had been reached.Nevertheless, despite attempts made by the executive branch, no international agreement has yet been implemented, and no nation, not even the United States, has soletitle or control over it. As anoutcome, international maritime law served as the guiding framework for courts reviewing claims to examine and collect items from the Titanic. In R.M.S. Titanic Inc. v. Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel[6], the eastern Virginia U.S. District Court granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Deep Ocean Expeditions (DOE) and other parties from diving into to the site after declaring R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the only salvor in possession.The court found that R.M.S. Titanic Inc.’s activities advanced the public awareness in the preservation of the Titanic, which helped to justify its conclusion.

  • Abandoned Shipwrecks Act 1987

To protect historic shipwrecks and coral reefs, the United States passed the “Abandoned Shipwrecks Act” in 1987[7]. According to the Act, abandoned shipwrecks that are discovered buried beneath a State’s submerged territory belong to that State. This was the outcome of the 1998 discovery of the Spanish vessel LA GALGA[8], which had been lost in a storm off the coast of Virginia in 1750. After signing the Pact of 1763, which culminated the Seven Years of War and gave Great Britain control of many of Spain’s possessions in North America, some reports found that Spain voluntarily abandoned the ship. The court upheld the “Abandoned Shipwrecks Act” and determined that the abandoned shipwreck, which was discovered buried in Virginia’s underwater lands, belonged to the state of Virginia.

Furthermore, as it isanticipated that government will never give up looking for and recovering their own boats, the rule of finds does not apply if the wreckage of a ship owned by the United States or another country will be found.The outcome would have been very different if the hefty amount of gold from the ‘CENTRAL AMERICA’ had been found in American seas.


Conventions &treaties helps in bridging the gap between state and resources by governing the legal issues concerning the found properties. The basic legal foundation for shipwrecks will continue to be international maritime law in the meantime. Though it has been proposed that the ‘UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage’[9]could be an improved suitable policy, the ‘United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III)’[10]is now the imposing deed for salvage protocol as the earlier one will put the state in a financially burdening position by imposing the full duty of protection of marine environment and excavation, making both law of salvage and finds impaired by disallowing commercial salvage. It is up to the state(s) to make sure that submerged relics are conserved, however, in light of the overall economic importance of shipwrecks.


After analysing the global restrictive policies, authors have inferred that pursuing any claim of title under the ‘Law of Finds’ is a dangerous endeavour due to global political activity.The future of law of finds and the law of salvage is in danger of disappearing,[11]as there is a rising movement to outlaw private entrepreneurship and promote government-sponsored undersea exploration instead.Ironically, developments in technology for finding and exploring long-lost shipwrecks have led to the courts applying centuries-old common law concepts to resolve the ostensibly straightforward issue of ownership for desertion.Because of the underlying cultural values that salvage law supports, admiralty courts appear to prefer law of salvage over the law of finds. Even while law of salvage has a strong place in the wreckage and treasure scenario, current concerns for the conservation of shipwreck sites as archaeological sites have led to regulation that has eroded this position. Additionally, international action poses a danger to outlaw private industry, law of salvageand the law of finds as it relates to shipwreck discoveries. The outcomes of such actions may, in theory, prevent the discovery and preservation of any wrecks at all while maintaining the archaeological integrity of wreck sites.These provisions threaten to encourage salvors’ furtive behaviour on a larger scale than what courts have bemoaned as a result of the application of law of finds. The typical “compromise” that encourages salvors to protect historic shipwreck sites is need of the hour. One strategy courts are taking to reach this balance is to take into account the salvage award calculation efforts to conserve the archaeological character of wreck sites.


[1]When an “Unsinkable Ship” Sinks: What the Titanic Teaches Business About Risk & Loss, UPS CAPITAL, (Jan. 18, 2023, 9:29 PM),

[2]Alia Shoaib, 18th-Century Spanish Shipwreck Has $17 Billion Worth of Coins and Gems Aboard, SCIENCEALERT, (Jan. 18 2023, 11.33 PM),

[3]Alex Lemaire,The World’s Most Valuable Shipwreck: The Nuestra Senora de Atocha, THE MARITIME  EXECUTIVE, (Jan. 14, 2023, 12:14 PM),


[4]Nancy Pope, Sinking of the “Central America” – and its Rebirth, SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM, (Jan. 19, 2023, 10:16 PM),

[5]See Mary S. Timpany, Ownership Rights in the Titanic, 37 CASE W. RES. L. REV. 72, 73 (1987).

[6]9 F.Supp.2d 624 (E.D. Va. 1998).

[7]Abandoned Shipwreck Act, 1987,43 U.S. Code 2101-2106, Acts of Congress, 1987(United States of America).

[8]National Park Service, https:// (last visited Jan. 18, 2022).

[9]S Dromgoole,2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MARINE AND COASTAL LAW, p.64  (2003) see- (last visited Jan. 18, 2022).

[10]United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, art. 303, Dec.10,1982.

[11]See Peter Hess, Special Report onUNESCO’s International Convention on UnderwaterCultural Heritage, held in Paris, France,April 19-24, 1999, (last visited Jan. 25, 2023).


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