Who owns shipwrecks, particularly historical shipwrecks?

In 1987 the United States Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. The Act provides that the United States has title to all abandoned shipwrecks found in U. S. waters within the 3-mile limit; however, the U. S. Government then passed title to the state in whose waters the shipwreck was located.

If the shipwreck is outside of the territorial waters, then the general admiralty law applies. In order for someone to be a finder, they must prove that the shipwreck has been abandoned by its original owners. If it has not been abandoned by its original owners, then the person recovering either the vessel or its contents would be treated as a salvor and would be entitled to a portion of the value retained.

Is a rescue salvage? The three-pronged legal test that is used to determine if a rescue is salvage is: (1) The vessel has to be in peril. (2) The salvage effort has to be voluntary, meaning no pre-established contract or agreement to provide salvage services exists between boater and salvor. (3) The salvage effort must be successful.
A salvor obtains a right to possess the property but not the right of ownership, and the salvor holds the saved property for the benefit of the rightful owner. However, if the law of "finds" applies, then the finder actually obtains possession and ownership of the property. In the case of a "find" the court does not have to set a value because by definition the finder takes title to the property free and clear of all other claims. Remember the rule, "finders keepers losers weepers".
The law of finds pertains to abandoned shipwrecks, but for unabandoned wrecks, a wreck whose owners still claim ownership -- the "law of salvage" has generally applied. Salvage law, originally designed to encourage ships to come to the aid of other ships in distress -- and any people or property they hold -- offers salvors compensation for services rendered, whether aiding a stricken vessel or salvaging an historic shipwreck.








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