The Hidden Galleon
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The Hidden Galleon

The Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology Cases

In January 1981, Donald Stewart caused affidavits of discovery to be filed in the U. S. District Court for the District of Maryland for four shipwrecks that did not exist. Their identities were a total fabrication. No artifacts were brought into court. The plaintiffs were his salvage company, SEA, Ltd., and his family-owned Atlantic Ship Historical Society, Inc. Investors then poured money into SEA, Ltd. Contrary to the affidavits filed in the claim, no shipwreck of any kind had been found. The State of Maryland, after being first alerted to Stewart's suspicious behavior, entered the litigation claiming that these "shipwrecks" belonged to the State. One of his ships, the San Lorenzo (CA R-81-53) was already well known thanks to his 1977 Baltimore Sun article and his success in tricking the National Park Service to give him credit in their Assateague Handbook in 1980. The other ships were the Santa Clara, 1798 (also R-81-53), the Santa Rosalea, 1785, (CA R-81-51), and the Royal George, 1789, (CA R-81-52).

In 1983, before any ruling was made on ownership, the author, who was a stockholder in SEA, Ltd, and the Assistant Project Director and diver employed by the corporation, filed motions to intervene with sworn affidavits stating that these vessels were fabrications used to entice investors into Stewart's salvage company and that nothing had been found. His only request to the court was that an evidentiary hearing be called to evaluate the claims and to review the author's evidence on the fraudulent shipwrecks. No such hearing was ever called. In December of 1983, the court rendered its decision. The court said that the wrecks had been found, were worth a "king's ransom," and that they belonged to the State of Maryland.  (577 F SUPP, 597).  David R. Owen, formerly President of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, and former law partner of the judge, wrote a scathing law review in the Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce entitled "Some Legal Troubles with Treasure: Jurisdiction and Salvage." He addressed the gross departures from the basic principles of admiralty law and the author's efforts to intervene in the case, but he circumvented the issue of fraud in his article. He did say that, "It should be noted, however, that the State did not, in its motion or supporting memoranda, argue that the court lacked in rem jurisdiction because there was no res (shipwreck) in existence. In short, the State did not adopt the additional and fundamental defense suggested by Mr. Amrhein ." Theses cases, in his words, resulted in nothing more than "an advisory opinion to the Attorney general of Maryland. It is elementary that a federal court has no power to render such an opinion."

The State of Maryland however, made no objection to the court's erroneous finding of facts even though it appeared they knew otherwise. They stated that they merely "assumed the truth" for the purposes of the litigation. Outside of the courtroom, they made representations that they believed nothing was there. Had the State of Maryland lost, they could have raised the issue of fraud and overturned the ruling. Academic and government archaeologists and historians thought that this was a great victory for historic preservation.

The author spent nearly two years in appeals to get evidence of the fraud into the court. He was fought every step of the way by the Attorney General of Maryland. When the author's evidence was submitted on the San Lorenzo, which included corroborating evidence from the National Park Service, it was misfiled in the federal court and later removed. The truth about the hoax on the wild ponies of Assateague Island was lost. But today, the full story is recounted in The Hidden Galleon.

The SEA, Ltd. (Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology) cases live on and are continuously cited in salvage cases as if these were real shipwrecks. They are not. Try these links.


The Treasure below: Jurisdiction over Salving Operations in International Waters

The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

Marine Protected Areas: Federal Legal Authority

Oceans Apart Over Sunken Ships: Is The Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention Really Wrecking Admiralty Law?

Regimen Del Derecho Maritimo Sobre Los Pecios Con Valor Arqueologico E Historico

When History takes a dive: The wreck of the Maple Leaf and the Legal Question of Marine Cultural Property The Abandoned Shipwreck Act: a Context

Heritage Resources Law: Protecting the Archaeological and Cultural Environment

The Hidden Galleon
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