No ‘Finders Keepers’ for Shipwreck Gold

      RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Treasure hunters who found the long-lost wreck of the SS Central America cannot claim “finders keepers” for the ship’s $300 million bounty of 19th century gold, a federal judge ruled.
     The sidewheel steamer sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas in September 1857, carrying 9.1 tons of gold, 477 passengers and 101 crew members. The ship plied the waters from Central America to New York and was carrying gold from the California Gold Rush when it went down. Loss of the enormous shipment contributed to the financial panic of 1857.
     Columbus-America Discovery Group found the wreckage of the “Ship of Gold” in 1989. The Central America and her booty, believed to be worth $300 million or more in today’s market, have been the subject of legal turmoil ever since.
     In 1990, a Virginia federal court awarded 90 percent of the gold to salvor-in-possession Columbus-America Discovery Group, with the remaining 10 percent to be divided among insurance underwriters.
     Insurers paid claims for the ship after it went down.
     After the discovery and initial haul, Recovery Limited hired deep-sea experts Odyssey Marine Exploration group to continue excavating the Central America. More gold and artifacts were recovered, including an 80-pound gold ingot that sold for $8 million.
     But U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith on Aug. 11 denied Recovery Limited title to the wreck, finding that salvage rights preclude the maritime law of finds, which was intended for naturally occurring valuables, such as ambergris and whales.
     “A free finders-keepers policy is but a short step from active piracy and pillaging,” Smith wrote. “Were this court to allow Recovery Limited Partnership, the current salvor-in-possession, to enjoy immediate title to the artifacts it has recovered since early 2014, then the court would risk an ‘unsupervised rush to the site to recover anything that could be grabbed.’ The public interest in historic shipwrecks would be diminished, if such an ‘unsupervised rush’ to sunken treasure were to result.”
     (In a separate case in Ohio Federal Court, investors that backed Columbus-America expedition leader Thomas G. Thompson in his quest for the Central America claimed they never saw returns for their $12.7 million investments. Thompson, who failed to show up at a court hearing, was apprehended by U.S. Marshals in Florida on Jan. 28 this year after two years on the lam. U.S. Marshal Peter Tobin called Thompson “perhaps one of the smartest fugitives ever sought.”)
     In her Aug. 11 ruling, Smith wrote: “The wreck of the Central America is certainly a ‘historic wreck,’ considering the substantial loss of life and property and the storied history of the shipwreck. …
     “‘(S)ubstantial efforts were made to locate the wreck of the Central America. Such efforts were expensive and time consuming. Scientific and historical research required many hours… (I)t is apparent that Columbus-America’s effort was monumental.'” (Citations omitted.)
     Neither Ira O. Kane, the court-appointed receiver for Recovery Limited nor Odyssey Marine Exploration responded to requests for comment.

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