Thursday, February 23, 2012

Peruvian Viceregency of Spain Illegal?

The US courts have told the Tampa-based deep sea salvage company Odyssey Marine Explorations that they have to return to Spain the gold and silver coins and other finds which they took in 2007 from the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal in 1804. At the time of the discovery the find was estimated to be worth around $500 million to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck in history.

Now Peru has asked the Supreme Court to put a hold on the return of the treasure to Spain because it claims that the treasure was ultimately "stolen from the Peruvian people" by Spanish colonialists.

"Cultural Property Observer", Washington lawyer Peter Tompa ('Peru to Supreme Court: Spain Stole It First!')postulates:
Shouldn't the ardent repatriationists of the archaeological community support Peru over dastardly Spain? Surely if they pushed for Yale to return study artifacts from Machu Picchu, they should root for Peru in its efforts to take back what they are due from whatever source. Or, is their ire selectively employed against American companies and institutions? Perhaps "finders, keepers" is the best rule after all.
I find the lawyer's argument rather difficult to follow. Yale University hanging on too long to the loaned excavation archive from Machu Piccu is a relatively cut-and-dried case.

The area that is now Peru in 1801-4 was a viceregency of Spain, under the rule of the Bourbon king Charles IV and administrated by Viceroy Gabriel de Aviles. The Peruvian mines and Lima mint (where many of these coins were struck) were Spanish-run for the Spanish Crown. Do the Peruvians expect the US Supreme Court to declare the entire Viceregency of Peru illegal? The Spanish Empire as a whole? On what grounds do they expect this re-writing of history?

I suppose if the US Supreme Court is going to negate colonial claims in such a manner, it’d be equally logical for the US Government to give the land Washington DC stands on back to the Nacotchtank and Piscataway and start paying them back-rent going back to 1791.

Map: The Spanish colonies in South America, 18th Century [Wikimedia]


  1. Another blog? My, you really do have too much time on your hands.

    In any event, my blog was about inconsistencies in the arguments of archaeological repatriationists, not my view about what the Supreme Court should rule.

    So, based on your current thinking that the Spanish were entitled to the riches of Peru, then certainly the Turkish Sultan's governor must have also been entitled to give Lord Elgin license to take the Parthenon frieze from Athens.

    After all, they were the colonial masters of Greece at the time too. And come to think of it, you must now also think that the Brits are entitled to keep what others claim were stolen from them from the colonial period. Yes or no?

  2. Well, as you can see, this one has been going for over a year now, so if you've only just found it, you are not being particularly cultural property-ly "observant" are you?

    So you were not making any particular point, just trying to be controversial were you?

    I am not sure where you would see any "inconsistencies". As I have said, the fight against no-questions-asked trading and the illicit antiquities trade is not about "repatriation".

    That's why I have a separate blog for these issues.

    Yes, I think the 19th century Turkish governor was indeed entitled to give whatever he gave to Lord Elgin (and anyone else at the time) - though it is unclear just what he did agree to, versions differ.

    Yes, the Brits are legally entitled to hang on to most (not all) of what they have stashed away.

    That does not give them the moral right to.

    Nor does that absolve them from giving consideration to the moral case for returning certain objects which are asked for.

    That is the problem with these (real) repatriation issues, but once again I stress that they are separate from the issues which are the main topic of interest in my PACHI blog.