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Florida Treasure Salvage boat boarded at sea, treasure confiscated

Category: Wreckdiver's Blog
Created on Sunday, 08 November 2015 11:01

The Blue Water Rose out of Key West Florida, moored just outside the Panama Canal. She was one of the primary recovery vessels used to recover artifacts from the wreck of the San Jose. (Photo - TreasureWorks)


By Tommy Vawter

It has been some time since I have sat down and put pen to paper on this subject matter, save a rant from time to time on TreasureWorks  FORUMS or on my facebook account. The last time was back in February of 2013 when I penned an article on my blog titled “Treasure Hunters – v – Archaeologists”.

Back then I supported the efforts of some professional Treasure Hunters who were working alongside Archaeologists and in cooperation with the Governments who had possible historic and reachable treasure within their political boarders, as the best way forward for the rescue of long lost shipwrecks from the ravages of the sea.

Just the year prior, Odyssey Marine was forced to hand over to the Kingdom of Spain some $500 Million in treasure they had recovered in International Waters, in what seemed at the time to be an arbitrary and capricious decision by the US Supreme Court, not to stay a lower court ruling awarding the treasure to Spain. This precedent setting case basically pumped out centuries of International Shipwreck Salvage Law with the bilge water.

That plot thickened with the release via WikiLeaks of a State Department Cable to the Kingdom of Spain where the US State Department promised support to Spain in the Odyssey Marine case in a quid pro quo exchange for Spain’s support in efforts to recover a painting from a French Museum that was taken by the Nazi’s during WWII, from relatives of a wealthy family, and presumably a Clinton campaign contributor now residing in the US. While the Kingdom of Spain ended up with the Odyssey Marine Treasure, the painting is still hanging in a French Museum.

This time it’s not the State Department in cahoots with a foreign government, for their own misguided political ends, all too eager to sacrifice the hard work and considerable expense of truly archaeological conscious treasure salvors. No, this time it’s the United Nations coming to the rescue of the Kingdom of Spain (more about Spain in a later blog), and the Panama Institute of National Culture.

 Some of the coins recovered from the San Jose (Photo courtesy Dan Porter)

A local Panamanian Company, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), located in Panama City, Panama, thought like I did, that the best way to proceed with a shipwreck recovery in Panamas waters was to bring together a team of experienced professional shipwreck salvors and internationally known professional marine archaeologists, and then to negotiate a good and decent contract with the Government.

The San Jose sank on June 17, 1631, off the archipelago of the Pearl Islands some 100km south of Panama City and was discovered in 2002, and IMDI put their plan into action. By 2003 they had a contract with the Government of Panama and Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC) to recover shipwreck artifacts in a total of 9 different zones in the waters of Panama, some to the north in the Caribbean side, and some to the south on the Pacific side including the site where the San Jose went down.

According to the terms of the contract IMDI keeps 65% and the Government of Panama gets 35%, plus any historically significant artifacts that are recovered.

Coincidently, also in 2003, Panama was the first nation to ratify the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This convention prohibits any commercial salvage of historically significant shipwrecks. However, IMDI’s contract predates the ratification of the UNESCO convention, and has been upheld by the Court of Supreme Justice of Panama.

Since the signing of the contract between IMDI and the Government of Panama, the two parties have had two formal divisions of artifacts, with each and every artifact being identified, tagged, properly preserved and cataloged, listed in the Panamanian State data base, properly assessed and valued and properly divided and documented with the Panamanian State and IMDI.

Earlier this year, the acting director of INAC requested that UNESCO send down a team to examine the state of conservation of the shipwreck San José. The UNESCO Mission arrived in July of this year.  Three representatives of UNESCO evaluated the actions carried out during the work of recovery, identification, preservation and cataloging of artifacts from the galleon. That team also proposed a management plan for the conservation of the galleon and property from foundering, another term for making sure that the artifacts don’t go on the open market or into private collections.

Also in July of this year one of the partners with IMDI, a Mexican national, went to a local bank to remove 3000 Colonial Coins from a safe deposit box that IMDI received from the earlier division between the company and the Government of Panama. He placed the coins in a suit case. As he and a friend put the suit case of coins into the trunk of his car outside a local Mall, agents from the National Customs Authority, who obviously had the pair under surveillance approached the two men and ordered them to open the suit case. The agents seized the coins, and according to the director of Heritage of the National Institute of Culture, Wilhelm Openness, the commercial firm must inform the authorities when you move the treasure, and in this case it was not. "There are regulations that must be met," he said. Although the government of Panama received their share of the artifacts during the same two division and transferred ownership to IMDI for their share. This regulation pertains to artifacts that have not been through the division process with the proper resolution to transfer ownership.

Saturio Segarra, of IMDI stressed that permits granted to them by the authorities and that these coins are owned by the company.  "The company had the right to dispose of their currencies. In fact, when the funding partners reached the country, the company decided to make an inventory of them for verification, so it was decided to remove them from the bank for this purpose, "specified Segarra. "We have provided the necessary evidence to show that these coins are ours," said the company official. Also he questioned the work arrangements carried out by UNESCO.

In August Capt. Dan Porter returned to Panama with me on a flight from Atlanta, and we had the opportunity to discuss the situation with the contract and the Government, and more specifically the interference of UNESCO at the behest of the new administration and acting director at INAC.

 Capt. Dan Porter bringing treasure aboard (Photo Courtesy Dan Porter)

Dan was returning to pick up his boat the Sea Reaper III, docked at the Port of Manzanillo, on the Caribbean side of Panama and head to the northern Caribbean and eventually back to his home port in Florida. Dan and his crew have been working for IMDI for a number of years and he also skippers the Blue Water Rose that is moored at the Balboa Yacht Club at the mouth of the Panama Canal here on the Pacific side of Panama.

At the beginning of October, INAC announced that they had terminated the contract with IMDI which had technically expired on August 28, 2015, and though they had an option to extend the contract according to the new managing director of INAC, Juan Francisco Guerrero. He made reference to the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), whose function is to ensure the preservation of underwater heritage and fight against commercial exploitation and the pillage of wrecks.

On the 23rd of October, while leaving one of the hangers here at the Panama Pacifico Airport (formally Howard Air Force Base), to go have lunch, I ran into a team of about 12 to 15 people sporting t-shirts with UNESCO printed on the front, headed out to conduct a survey the wreck of the San Jose.

That same afternoon I received a call from Dan who was now back in Florida. I had been hearing rumors from another Treasure Hunting friend up in Florida that Dan’s Boat the Sea Reaper III had been boarded by the Coast Guard when they entered US waters. I don’t usually put much stock in second hand rumors, and in any case it’s not unusual for the Coast Guard to check boats entering US waters in search of the tones of drugs that head into the US every day. but since I had Dan on the phone, I just had to ask. He said that they had been boarded by Homeland Security and they asked if he had any treasure aboard. Dan said yes, he had artifacts he legally obtained in permitted areas on his return. Dan said they only wanted to see the treasure recovered from Panama. Dan showed them the treasure along with all the necessary resolutions and releases by the Panamanian Government. The agents told him that they received orders to confiscate all the treasure from Panama. They were also told that Dan was smuggling major treasure and caring illegal aliens.

On the 31st of October, the headlines read “UNESCO recognizes commitment of Panama to preserve heritage”. The Director General of the UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stressed that Panama is committed to the global development agenda, and is ahead of the countries of the region in Development Goals.

Bokova's statements came at a meeting with Panamas Vice President and Foreign Minister, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado. At this meeting, the Vice-President expressed her satisfaction with the visit of a mission in Panama by UNESCO, during this week, which it is verifying the conditions under which lies the Galleon San Jose, Underwater World Heritage Site. In turn, she was pleased that Panamanian NGOs were recognized with the UNESCO-Hamdan prize.

So there you have it, UNESCO, is pulling Panamas strings, and is making the Galleon San Jose a World Heritage Site, giving money to the Government in the way of loans in yet another quid pro quo arrangement that snatches the hard earned and legally owned treasure from the treasure hunters. It is truly a sad day for the treasure salvage industry, and I have to say that at least for the time being, it represents the end of legal shipwreck salvage in these waters.

And they call us Pirates.