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Treasure trove / salvage of historical wrecks

One of our key specialities is dealing with salvage of bullion- carrying historical wrecks, acting for specialist salvors and other interests.


As sonar technology improves more wrecks can be located at ever greater depths on the sea bed. Some date back to the days of the Spanish Armada whilst others date back to the last two World Wars when ships were vulnerable to torpedo attack in territorial and international  waters. These cases raise issues under salvage laws which were not drafted with these type of wrecks in mind.

Treasure trove and the Salvage Convention

Finding a wreck starts with archival searches looking for clues as to the location of the sinking. Determining the name of the ship, its history and cargo is just the beginning. Putting aside the technical challenges involved, deep sea wreck salvage of historic artefacts throws up significant issues on ownership and jurisdiction. There are large upfront costs involved in the salvage operations and the stakes are high. A Spanish vessel carrying Inca gold sunk by the British Navy in war off the coast of South America in the 1700s will see many prospective owners claiming ownership. Questions arise over the applicable law and will often concern the status of heritage cargoes as well as the law of Prize and how that is to be reconciled with the modern day Salvage Convention. These issues require careful research and a clear strategy.

More recently, gold and silver was moved in significant quantities between commonwealth countries as part of the war effort in vessels chartered by the UK government in particular and insured often under the UK war risk insurance scheme. These are attractive projects with potentially large returns. Our team is adept at digging in the public records following the trail of correspondence relating to long forgotten cargoes from India, South Africa, Canada to name but a few.

Here in the UK, finds must be handed to the Receiver of Wrecks whose remit is laid down in the Merchant Shipping Act and its role is in part to determine and rule on ownership. The salvors will then be looking to get an award under the Salvage Convention and we are very familiar with the issues that arise. Disputes involving states gives rise to issues around State Immunity and detailed consideration as to the commercial purpose or otherwise of the ship and cargo and at what time that determination should be made.