Norfolk, Va. Finders keepers the principle that keeps treasure hunters looking for riches at the bottom of the sea has taken a broadside hit in court.
A federal appeals court ruled over the summer that Spain owns the wrecks of two Spanish warships that sank off the Virginia coast two centuries ago.
The treasure hunter at the center of the case plans to appeal to the Supreme Court this week. Some say that if the ruling is allowed to stand, it could put countless shipwrecks and perhaps billions in booty off limits.
"It really is a pretty abrupt turnabout to 300 years of traditional admiralty law," said Ben Benson, the disappointed owner of Chincoteague-based Sea Hunt Inc.
Traditionally, owners of sunken ships who didn't look for them within a given amount of time gave up their rights to the ships, Benson said. This ruling changes that by saying that a shipwreck has to be explicitly abandoned in order for someone else to salvage it, he said.
At issue are the submerged wrecks of the frigates Juno and La Galga, which went down off Assateague Island on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Juno disappeared during a squall in 1802. According to some accounts, it carried as much as $500 million in coins and precious metals. La Galga sank during a storm in 1750 a few miles away. It apparently had no treasure but may have been carrying horses that were ancestors to the wild ponies that wander Assateague Island today.
In 1998, however, Spain claimed ownership of the vessels the first such claims the country had made in hundreds of years. The U.S. government supported Spain, arguing that allowing the salvage of foreign warships would subject U.S. vessels to the same fate.