The threat of the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage

Porcelain from the commercially exploited Tau Co Ca Mau wreck on sale in a shop in the UK © U. Guerin


Commercial exploitation is the legal recovery of artefacts from a heritage site with the aim of putting them up for sale. This phenomenon is especially to be observed on underwater archaeological sites. Commercial exploitation operations regularly violate scientific standards of excavation of archaeological sites, as they focus on the recovery of valuable materials. Though few wrecks hold commercial riches, commercial treasure-hunters, though their excavations of these sites, destroy them in their search.

In weighing out the damage done against the advantage gained by commercial treasure-hunts, the heritage loss largely outweighs the financial gains a State can achieve by issuing salvage permits. In the Bahamas, for example, only one payment was received by the Government after 71 permits were issued over 27 years of salvage recovery. This was only a relatively small payment gained, while dozens of the most important heritage sites of the region were fully destroyed.

Moreover, large treasure-hunting enterprises often engage in fraud, tax-evasion and money laundering. The inflated promise of valuable cargo is used as a fraudulent ploy to attract naïve investors and to obtain permissions. In reality, commercial exploitation does not bring advantages for States. They rather set a dangerous precedence allowing for the wilful destruction and sale of the heritage of humanity.

The 2001 Convention stipulates in Article 2.7 as overarching principle that underwater cultural heritage should not be commercially exploited. This regulation is in conformity with the moral principles that already apply to cultural heritage on land. It is not to be understood as preventing archaeological research, if by governmental institutions or by private undertakings holding a permit from the competent authority, or by paid tourist access.

Every State, seeking to protect the world’s underwater heritage from commercial exploitation has an interest to ratify the 2001 Convention. With this act it does not only prohibit exploitation, but also the later sale and traffic of unethically recovered artefacts.


Some recent cases of the commercial exploitation of underwater heritage:


  • The Cirebon Wreck (commercial exploitation) - Indonesia: In 2003 local Indonesian fisher caught Chinese ceramics in their nets in the Northern Java Sea, off Cirebon, Indonesia. These objects belonged to a wreck, which sank at the turn of the first millennium, while transporting Yue yao (Yue ware), a porcelain produced in the ancient region of Yue, China. In April 2004 Cirebon wreck was commercially exploited by a private Belgian company, assisted by a Belgian Museum. It raised some 500.000 pieces of the cargo. However, it threw half of the artefacts (250.000) back into the ocean to destroy them, as they would not fetch a good market price, required too much conservation effort and were not to be left to local pillagers to sell. The commercial exploitation devastated the 10th century site, damaged most artefacts and destroyed many, including the hull. The largest part of the artefact collection left Indonesia in 2013 to be sold on the international market. The Cirebon wreck find was important due to the large variety of items, religious and other, found on the wreck (largely destroyed).

  • The Belitung Wreck (commercial exploitation) – Indonesia: The Indonesian Belitung wreck was commercially exploited and destroyed in 1998. The cargo was sold to a private entity in Singapore. The fund share given to Indonesia, despite a legal dispute, was minimal. Indonesia lost an extremely rare wreck that could have provided scientific information and fostered sustainable development. A maritime museum close to the shipwreck site could have drawn tourists and generated local employment. However, the artefacts that would have constituted a museum collection were sold and there is nothing left of the shipwreck. The hull of the wreck is devastated. A initially planned exhibition of the finds in the Freer Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian was halted by the museum, taking into account the unethical recovery of the finds. The Indonesian Belitung wreck was the only 9th century dhow ever found.

  • Ancient Portuguese Wrecks (commercial exploitation) - Mozambique: Several Portuguese shipwreck site were exploited by a commercial enterprise off Ilha de Mozambique. Today the sites are denuded of all the natural material and are lying exposed. Many of the precious historic artefacts, testimony of early seafaring, were sold to be melted in order to serve in the production of micro-chips. After an in depth assessment of the work of the treasure-hunters the Mozambican government halted their activities. The early Portuguese wrecks found off Africa are important witnesses of early European colonialization efforts and the competition to find the way to India. 

  • Panama San José Wreck (commercial exploitation) - Panama: In 2015 the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the 2001 Convention cooperated with the Panamanian authorities to examine the state of the site of the San José shipwreck, a Spanish galleon that sank in the archipelago of Las Perlas in the 17th century. Treasure-hunters working on the San José had created enormous holes in the seabed using propeller-wash deflectors, had recovered all artefacts lying in the area without sufficient analysis and documentation and equally without any research question to be answered. They had then so heavily cleaned silver artefacts that they almost appeared unnatural, while less sellable artefacts had not been provided with any conservation treatment. The San José find would have provided an ideal occasion for the establishment of a museum exhibition for Panama. 
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