The Adventures of Tintin is the 2011 film adaptation of the legendary comic book series of the same name (it is now available on Blu-ray). The comics were written and illustrated by Georges Prosper Remi, who went by the pen-name “Hergé” and came out from 1929 to 1976, making it one of the longest-running and most popular European comics ever. The movie as such is rather vague about its setting and even its time period, but it definitely raise one legal question we touched on briefly in our post on lost property almost a year ago: treasure troves and salvage. The former post focused mostly on buried treasure, but The Adventures of Tintin leads us to consider a slightly different subject: sunken treasure. The basic question is this: Even assuming Tintin and Haddock can find the sunken treasure, can they keep it? There are some minor spoilers inside.
I. Admiralty Law and the Law of the Sea
The law regarding maritime transportation is known as “admiralty law,” and it happens to be one of the oldest extant bodies of law in the world, having changed remarkably little in the last several hundred years. This is distinct from the “Law of the Sea“. The former, about which we are concerned, has to do with ships and sailing, both in international waters and on inland bodies of water. This is a species of private international law, also called “conflict of laws,” and has significantly to do with the choice of jurisdiction, i.e. when something happens outside the political boundaries of a state or has to do with a transaction that takes place in more than one state, which set of laws do we use? Admiralty law has its own substantive content as well, and we’ll get to that in a second, but it has historically been one of the most active drivers of conflict of laws, as it has long been the context in which conflict of laws situations arose. The law of the sea, on the other hand, is a species of public international law and deals with the ways in which states can claim territorial interests in the high seas and the ways in which they can claim and exploit maritime resources.
It turns out that both admiralty law and the law of the seas are implicated by efforts to salvage sunken treasure. Admiralty law governs the ability of salvagers to legally become “salvors-in-possession,” thus securing a property interest in the materials they recover. But the law of the sea governs states’ attempts to assert property interests in salvage found within their territorial waters.
II. Admiralty and Salvage
The fundamental rule of admiralty law with respect to salvage is that anyone who saves property from the dangers of the sea, i.e. engages in maritime salvage gains a possessory interest in the salvaged property. So, if you’re out on your thirty-footer and run into trouble, and someone hauls you back to shore, they could very easily wind up owning the boat if you don’t have enough money to pay them a reasonable salvage fee. Thomas H. Belknap, Jr., a partner at Blank Rome in New York, actually has an excellent article on how treasure salvage works. The topic is pretty complicated, actually, so those who really want to get a feel for it should go there.
Briefly though, the basic rule is that a person who salvages property from the water when the owner is identified gains a right of possession. They do not automatically gain title to the property, but they can assert a lien on the property for the value of their voluntary services. See generally Adams v. Unione Mediterranea Di Sicurta, 220 F.3d 659 (5th Cir. 2000). And take a look at the parties in that one, just to give you an idea of how complicated admiralty cases can be. You’d need the better part of an entire whiteboard just to map out the various parties, claims, counter-claims, and cross-claims. But, in short, once a salvor can establish salvor-in-possession status, usually via an in rem action, they are entitled to a salvage award. Depending on what kind of salvage we’re talking about, this can either be satisfied by the owner of the salvaged property, by holding an auction of the salvaged property and giving the proceeds to the salvor-in-possession, or by simply transferring title of the salvaged goods.
For a look at how this stuff works out in practice, consider the wreck of the H.M.S. Titanic. This has actually been the subject of protracted litigation in the Fourth Circuit since the wreck was discovered in 1987, most recently in R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 435 F.3d 521 (4th Cir. 2006). This is an in rem action wherein the salvors of the wreck of the Titanic, RMST, are attempting to hammer out their salvor-in-possession status and potentially gain title to the thousands of artifacts recovered from the wreck and of the wreck itself. Litigation has gone on for the better part of twenty years at this point. The reason there is a lawsuit about this at all is because various other parties challenged RMST’s exclusive claim to the wreck, as other salvage companies have attempted to gain some rights there as well. Ultimately, the District Court awarded RMST a $110 million salvage award, which can be satisfied either by giving RMST title to the property or holding an auction and selling off the artifacts to willing buyers. Details can be found in a press release from RMST’s parent company, here, discussing the outcome of the litigation.
So what about Tintin? The subject matter here is the wreck of the H.M.S. Unicorn, lost… at some point… somewhere. The movie is fuzzy on the details. Anyhow, should Tintin and Haddock discover the wreck, they’d have to find investors willing to fund an expedition, ideally securing salvage rights in a court of law before they did so. The question then becomes whether anyone could assert any kind of superior salvage rights. It’s possible that a sovereign state could do so—more on that in section II—but it’s unlikely that anyone else could do so. Tintin/Haddock are the only people who know where it is, and if they play their cards right, the first time the public would get wind of the location would be when they file their in rem action to secure their rights.
Two things to be clear about. First, Haddock’s status as the last remaining descendant of Lord Francis is irrelevant. Lord Francis’ didn’t actually own the treasure in question, he was merely transporting it for the Crown, so he didn’t have a property interest in it he could pass on to his heirs. Second, the fact that it was the property of the Crown, which is still around, doesn’t really matter either. Again, if someone salvages property from the sea floor, even if they don’t gain title to it, they do gain a possessory interest and can assert a lien on the property equal to the fair value of their services. The typical salvage award for towing a distressed ship back to dock is something like 10-25% of the value of the ship (which is why most boat owners have salvage contracts ready to go, so they can negotiate a price for the tow rather than get stuck in a salvage situation). But the typical salvage award for property recovered from the sea floor is the entire value of the property, as without the efforts of the salvor, it would remain lost, potentially forever. So Tintin/Haddock would wind up with a lien on everything they recovered equal to its fair market value. With an interest like that, it really doesn’t matter if the Crown (or anyone else) still technically has title, as they’ve got an interest equal to the value of the whole thing. This interest can also be sold, so even though they can’t convey title, they can convey and be paid for the right to possess the property. Ergo, they get paid.
III. The Law of the Sea
Then there’s the question of, if the wreck is located within a state’s territorial waters, that state can claim an interest in the property. The general answer is “Yes,” but a titled interest only. This is significant for two reasons. First, states (and here we mean “governments in general,” not just states of the Union) can control who has permission to engage in salvage activities inside their territorial waters. In Aqua Log, Inc. v. Georgia, 594 F.3d 1330 (11th Cir. 2010), the Eleventh Circuit considered a case where the state of Georgia asserted various interests in vessels which sank in Georgia’s rivers. Specifically, the Georgia statutes in question required that anyone who wanted to engage in salvage activities submit a complete salvage plan, including environmental impact statement, to the state Department of Natural Resources, complete with a $50,000 bond and $10,000 annual permit fee. It turns out that salvage activities can actually be pretty harmful to riverbeds and ocean floors, so this makes some sense. But it also serves as a way of making sure the state gets a “cut” of whatever is found by charging up-front for the right to even try to salvage anything.
Second, Georgia asserted an ownership interest in any logbooks recovered from salvaged vessels. As states are significantly responsible for maintaining waterways, logbooks which might indicate what caused a ship to sink are valuable commodities. In addition, logbooks of older vessels can be significant cultural and historical documents, so there’s some public interest the state owning such things. Either way, the salvor-in-possession would still be entitled to its salvage award, so one might wonder what the fuss is about. The answer is that Georgia invoked the Eleventh Amendment, which restricts the jurisdiction of federal courts over cases involving a state and citizens of another state. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that yes, the Eleventh Amendment applies to in rem actions, but only where the state has actual possession of the res. Because Aqua Log, Inc. was the salvor-in-possession, Georgia could not avoid federal jurisdiction.
While the Eleventh Amendment situation is unique to United States law, aside from that, this would turn out approximately the same way in any country with a modern legal system. Admiralty law is remarkably uniform across jurisdictions, as, again, it’s one of the oldest bodies of law still in force. Even in common law jurisdictions, admiralty law was a separate body of law which drew its authority from the Corpus Juris Civilis, i.e. the sixth-century Code of Justinian. Islamic jurists made some innovations there, but they still significantly relied on the Code of Justinian for the content of their admiralty law. The only place one might really run into trouble is in rogue or failed states which don’t really keep with the rule of law, and there one would only have a problem if the state simply decided to confiscate the salvage.
The movie completely glosses over all of this, operating under the assumption that once Tintin and Haddock know where the wreck is located, their fortunes are made. This is probably correct, as far as it goes, but the legal process for making said fortunes is possibly the most complicated version of “finders keepers” imaginable. But, ultimately, it does tend to work out that way.
This is really just the beginning of our consideration of this subject though, as the law regarding sunken treasure actually comes into play with various superheroes and supervillains too. Think Aquaman, Namor, etc. We’ll take a look at those guys in a later post.