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Cultural heritage: Whose deep sea treasure is it really?

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« on: September 06, 2007, 02:20:10 am »

Cultural heritage: Whose deep sea treasure is it really?

Published: September 4, 2007

The United Nations 2001 convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage was right to oppose the plundering of sunken archaeological treasures for profit. Unfortunately, only 15 countries have ratified the agreement, and the plundering has begun.

In what may become the biggest underwater find ever, Odyssey Marine Explorations, a commercial operation from Tampa, Florida, has reportedly hauled 17 tons of gold and silver from a ship widely believed to be the Spanish galleon Nuestra Seņora de las Mercedes that was sunk by a British warship off the coast of Portugal in October 1804.

The company claims ownership of its find. And, of course, Spain is hiring lawyers and preparing its legal claim to the trove, claiming a sovereign nation's right over its cultural heritage.

It's clearly going to be a protracted legal battle, but we think it would only be right to let another set of plaintiffs stake their claim to the treasure, too: Spain's former colonies in Latin America, where the loot was looted in the first place.

The hoard of gold and silver coins that sunk with the Mercedes was probably minted in Peru - from where the galleon set sail for Cadiz, via Montevideo, in March of 1804.

 Though a potential Peruvian claim to the treasure would rest on tenuous legal grounds - Peru wasn't even an independent country in 1804, but part of the Spanish empire - it certainly could make a sound case based on moral considerations: The Inca didn't freely give gold and silver to the Spanish invaders. Spain took it by force.

The moment seems ripe to reclaim long lost treasure. After stonewalling Italian officials for years, the Getty, the Met and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts have all agreed to return looted antiquities to Italy. Peru is negotiating with Yale to recover thousands of pieces taken by Hiram Bingham III from Machu Picchu in 1912 for a "loan" to the Peabody museum.

Two years ago, Italy returned to Ethiopia the 1,700-year-old Axum obelisk, taken to Rome in 1937 on the orders of Benito Mussolini. And it has promised to return a second-century Roman statue of Venus to Libya, where Italian troops stole it in 1913.

Admittedly, these cases of theft are much more recent, not on the appalling scale of the Spanish crown's conquest and plunder of Latin American treasure hundreds of years ago.

But if Greece can insist on the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, which Lord Elgin took from the Parthenon to ship to the British Museum in 1801 - when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire - Peru surely has a shot at the gold of Nuestra Seņora de las Mercedes.

The fate of the recovered treasure is likely to be defined now in a federal court in Tampa, where Odyssey quietly stashed the hoard before announcing its find. When the lawyers from Odyssey face off with those representing Spain, perhaps Peru's lawyers should come, too.
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