What Shall We Do With Treasure Shipwrecks?

Between the 16th and the 19th centuries hundreds of ships transporting enormous amounts of silver and gold from America to Europe sunk in the sea. Can we sell recovered coins on the market? Gary Beals says there are good reasons to do that – under certain conditions. Image: Comfreak / Pixabay.
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Between the 16th and the 19th centuries thousands of ships transported enormous amounts of silver and gold from America to Europe. Not all of them arrived safely, many perished in the sea. In the last decades the cargo of some of these shipwrecks was recovered thanks to modern scientific techniques. But that led to questions as: do all the coins and ingots belong to museums (or more likely: into museum depots)? Or may they be sold on the market?

UNESCO Says Business With Coins Is Bad

Twenty years ago, the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage expressed best practice rules on that matter. Generally this Convention follows the position of many archaeologists suggesting that business with coins is something unethical and should be forbidden.

Gary Beals, a numismatist, diver and journalist with decades of experience in that field argues for a change of view. In a detailed paper he pleads for a commercialization of historical coins from those shipwrecks. Because not every single coin from these very large masses of coins is necessary for research. He stretches that archaeologists must be part of recovery operations and follow the mission. A thorough research on the historical objects is also pivotal.

But then selling part of the coins should be an option. First because researchers will not need all coins for their work; second because numismatists and collectors contribute to safe-keeping the memory of the past. And then, of course, the work of underwater archaeologists has to be funded in some way, too …


Here you can download and study Gary Beals’ complete paper. (At the end he also added a long list of known sunk ships transporting coins over the centuries.)

The author encourages all readers to leave a comment and write him what they think about his position via e-mail.

If you want to read more about shipwreck recovery operations, check out our archive.