Sunken Treasure Laws


Laws regarding sunken treasure are usually addressed by admiralty or maritime law`s salvage laws. While other types of salvage laws concern contracted salvage and "pure salvage," wherein a rescuer aids a damaged ship and receives a percentage of the remaining goods, treasure salvage generally results in the salvor getting a significant amount of the treasure.

Abandoned Shipwreck Act

  • The United States Abandoned Shipwreck Act prohibits the collection of goods from any vessel it may hold claim to, meaning treasure found in U.S. waters will not usually be awarded to the salvor. Treasure hunters wanting to keep their booty should head to international waters,

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

  • In 2001, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has ruled that any "artifacts or human remains continuously under water for 100 years or more fall into the category of 'underwater cultural heritage' and cannot be commercially exploited."

Claims Court

  • Sunken treasure found on a commercial or merchant ship could still be claimed by the salvor, who must bring his findings to a federal claims court.


  • Treasure salvors get a higher percentage of the recovered goods because typically the sunken treasure has been lost for hundreds of years. The original owner still holds a stake in the treasure, as does the insurer in the rare case that the vessel was insured.

Treasure Ships

  • The most common ships carrying treasure are from the Spanish Main, German submarines from World War II and sunken merchant ships. Treasure on these vessels can include historical artifacts of high monetary value.


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