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Countries Racing to Retrieve Plundered Relics

Posted September. 22, 2007 08:45,   


In October 1804, off the coast of Portugal, the Spanish warship “Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes” was attacked by a British warship and sunk. Last May, an American deep-sea exploration company “Odyssey Marine Exploration” found the Spanish ship. Odyssey announced that it salvaged the ship in the open sea in the Atlantic and that it found $500 million (app. 467 billion KRW) in treasure aboard the ship, which makes it the most valuable find of its kind.

Spain immediately claimed ownership of the ship and filed a lawsuit with a federal court in Tampa, Florida, U.S., where the ship was found. The case is attracting worldwide attention as it may trigger a race to claim ownership of underwater artifacts and could affect return negotiations of relics between countries.

Who Owns the Treasure Ship? –

The Spanish government said, “As a sovereign country, we have a right to protect our cultural assets,” while the exploration company said, “We discovered it, so it’s ours.” Co-president of the company Greg Stem said, “We found it by using our sophisticated exploration technique and archeological expertise. If we can’t have it, why would we have spent a lot of money to find it?”

More people are expected to be involved in this legal battle. The New York Times wrote in its recent editorial, “The Peruvian government should also claim ownership of the ship by sending a lawyer.” Its rationale is that the gold and silver coins on the ship were minted in Peru, then a colony of Spain, and that the treasure was looted by Spain. The problem is Peru was not a sovereign nation in 1804 when the ship went down, and some question whether it can be a concerned party in this lawsuit.

Relic Retrieval Movement –

A large collection of marble sculptures was removed from the Parthenon in Athens to Britain in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. Taking advantage of the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he obtained a firman from the Ottoman Sultan to remove movable sculptures or inscriptions. However, taking advantage of the political situation, he also managed to remove the famous Parthenon Friezes. The sculptures were deposited in the British Museum, London in 1816, and in 1936 were placed into the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

The Peru government, however, has been encouraged by efforts by the Greek government for the return of the “Elgin Marbles” – marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon to Britain in the 19th Century by the aforementioned Earl of Elgin. Greece was then under colonial rule by the Ottoman Empire.

After decades of persistent requests to the British government for their return so that they can be exhibited in Greece’s new “Acropolis Museum,” the British have recently said that they might “loan” the artifacts to Greece.

There have been agreements to resolve these types of conflicts over relics in the past; however, as these agreements were made after the 1950’s, they cannot be applied retrospectively, and even if they do, only the signatories of such pacts can benefit from them. Therefore, there are many countries exerting diplomatic pressure to get their relics back.

On September 12, the start of the new millennium according to the Coptic Calendar (ancient Egyptian calendar), Ethiopia began a “Retrieval of Artifacts Plundered by Foreign Powers” campaign. Under this campaign, in 2005 it retrieved a 1,700 year-old-obelisk Italy stole, and it is trying to have the ashes of a prince who was killed and buried as a captive in England in the mid-19th Century returned as well.

Peru and Yale University agreed on September 17 that Yale return around 4,000 Incan artifacts it excavated at Machu Picchu.

The Korean government has been engaged in negotiations with the French government to get back books that were plundered from the library of Oegyujanggak when a French warship invaded Korea’s Gangwha Island.