From Seeking Alpha
A few of you may recall this article, from August of 2008, explaining why "August is the time to buy Odyssey Marine Exploration". First, a few words on what's right with the article. Oddyssey Marine "arrested" some wrecks -- true enough.
This means that some token from the vessel (or ostensibly so) was presented to a court of admiralty in connection with a claim on the vessel - a claim in rem against the vessel itself, rather than a claim against its owner.
An "arrest" doesn't prove either that the vessels at issue are the property of OMEX, or that OMEX even has properly identified the wrecks; it simply brings the supposed wrecks within the jurisdiction of an admiralty court.
This means that the fight over the wreck sites can begin.
Let's think back to the famous wreck Atocha, found by Mel Fisher in 1971. Finding the Atocha at a cost of over $2 million didn't immediately enrich the Fishers.
It simply embroiled them in a series of law suits over title to the find and to their share, if any, after taxes (try paying timely quarterly taxes on the appraised value of a trove of antiquities without destroying the market for the antiquities by dumping them).
Among the claims raised by the government in the suit concluded in 1978 were claims that the government owned the wreck as abandoned property and as an assemblage of antiquities - claims supported by statutes the government had passed.
The fact that the Fishers did well in the case decided in 1978 was not based on some immovable pillar of admiralty law, but (if you read the linked case) solely on the language and history of the statutes actually in effect at the time of the suit. The law has changed quite a bit since then.
Under the 1902 treaty between the United States and Spain, the United States must afford Spanish warships not only "the same assistance and protection" as United States warships but also "the same immunities which would have been granted to its own vessels in similar cases."
Since modern U.S. law on U.S. warships places the sovereign that launched the warship in absolute control not only of the lost warship but of everything within its debris field, and prohibits courts from determining that they have been abandoned without an express declaratin of abandonment, the happy-go-lucky conclusions offered by some wreck enthusiasts regarding the outlook for acquiring title to a lost Spanish warship full of New World treasures require some serious consideration.