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The Vrouw Maria court case
The finding of the wreck
The finding of the wreck of the Vrouw Maria in summer 1999 led to the provisions of the Finnish Antiquities Act being tested regarding underwater ancient monuments. The Vrouw Maria was a Dutch merchant ship which was wrecked in the Finnish archipelago in 1771 on a voyage from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg. The wreck is located in Finnish waters in Nagu (Nauvo) and is covered by the Finnish Antiquities Act. Under the Antiquities Act, an age of a hundred years constitutes grounds for the protection of wrecks, and thus the Vrouw Maria, which sank 230 years ago is a protected ancient monument.
The wreck was found by the association Pro Vrouw Maria, set up to encourage and support the search for and research into the wreck of the Vrouw Maria, headed by side-scan sonar operator and diver Rauno Koivusaari. The majority of the Pro Vrouw Maria association's members had previously worked in close collaboration with the National Board of Antiquities in wreck research as members of the organisation Teredo Navalis. The wreck was found early in the search and Rauno Koivusaari properly notified the National Board of Antiquities of the find immediately by phone. It was agreed with the finding team that they would document the wreck by taking photographs without touching the wreck. The author visited the finding team on the island of Jurmo the following week with a group of Australian maritime archaeologists who were visiting the Maritime Museum of Finland, and at that time the author, as a representative of the National Board of Antiquities gave the finding team permission to raise six objects from the wreck that might be of use in dating and identifying the wreck. The objects were selected on the basis of the underwater photographs. Besides seeing the beautiful Archipelago Sea, the Australian guests visiting Finland for an exhibition project also saw the initial stages of a find that was important to Finnish maritime archaeology. The Vrouw Maria court case began at the end of that same year.
The Maritime Act or the National Antiquities Act?
Two members of the Pro Vrouw Maria association brought an action against the State of Finland and the National Board of Antiquities on the basis of the Maritime Act. The case was brought before Turku District Court in December 1999. The plaintiffs asked the District Court, among other things, to confirm their first salvor's right to the wreck of the Vrouw Maria. The first court session was held in autumn 2002. At that time the court decided whether the Maritime Act and its provisions on marine salvage or the National Antiquities Act were to be applied to the Vrouw Maria. In the view of the plaintiffs, the provisions of the Maritime Act were to apply, while the National Board of Antiquities considered that the National Antiquities Act was to be applied to the wreck. The District Court, composed of one judge, heard the case and issued an interim judgment, according to which the Maritime Act and the National Antiquities Act were not mutually exclusive but that the acts were passed with different situations in mind. According to the interim judgment, the acts were acts which complemented each other in terms of interpretation and both could be applied to a wreck protected under the National Antiquities Act which sank over a hundred years ago. The District Court ordered that the legal process continue.
Main hearing in the District Court
The hearing proper took place in Turku District Court in spring 2004. By this point the plaintiffs had specified their claims as follows: they claimed a marine salvage award for the six objects which they had been given permission to raise soon after locating the wreck. The plaintiffs considered that they had a right based either on an agreement or on the right of first salvage to salvage all the other objects in the wreck of the Vrouw Maria and in the vicinity of the wreck and to receive a salvage award for these in accordance with the Maritime Act. They also considered that they had right of ownership to the wreck and thus also the right themselves to salvage the wreck and the objects in the vicinity of the wreck or to decide who was to carry out the salvage operation. If the State was considered to be the owner of the wreck, they would have the right, either by agreement or by right of first salvor, to salvage the wreck and thus the right to a marine salvage award.
The plaintiffs considered that by giving them permission to raise six objects from the wreck the National Board of Antiquities had possibly entered into a marine salvage agreement with the finders of the wreck. They also considered that as finders of the wreck, they had gained the right to marine salvage because they were the first on the spot and in their view ready to start salvage operations and that they had become the owners of the wreck on grounds of possession.
The National Board of Antiquities contested all the claims made by the plaintiffs. The Board considered that granting permission to raise the objects did not give rise to a marine salvage agreement but constituted investigation operations permitted by the National Board of Antiquities under Section 10 of the Antiquities Act. It also considered that if the wreck of the Vrouw Maria or objects on board the wreck were to be raised in the future, this would not constitute marine salvage under the Maritime Act but investigation under the Antiquities Act. The plaintiffs had not gained first salvor rights because the matter concerned an ancient monument and not a vessel in peril requiring immediate salvage. Because under the Antiquities Act an external body may not disturb an ancient monument or take it into possession without the permission of the National Board of Antiquities, right of ownership to an ancient monument cannot be gained by possession.
In June 2004, the District Court, composed of three judges, ruled that the action brought by the plaintiffs was to be dismissed in its entirety. The court considered that the provisions of the Antiquities Act as a specialised act excluded the possibility of applying the provisions of the Maritime Act on marine salvage and salvage sites to wrecks and objects found on a wreck or apparently originating from a wreck subject to the Antiquities Act.
According to the ruling of the District Court, the plaintiffs have not gained the position of first salvor referred to in the Maritime Act with regard to the National Board of Antiquities on the grounds that the Vrouw Maria is a sunken ship and the wreck and the objects within it are not at risk of marine peril. This being the case, the plaintiffs have not, on the grounds of having found the wreck, gained priority rights to carry out raising operations nor rights to receive a salvage award under the Maritime Act if raising operations are commenced at some point. The court considered that no marine salvage situation was involved regarding the Vrouw Maria and the need to raise the wreck and the objects on it may be more archaeological or historic. This need was covered by the provisions of the Antiquities Act and the National Board of Antiquities has the sole authority to consider and decide over what is to be done with the wreck and the objects it contains. Even were it to be considered that the plaintiffs had a right to marine salvage and a salvage award for the wreck, the National Board of Antiquities would nevertheless have the right to prohibit raising and salvage operations.
Case in the Court of Appeal
The plaintiffs appealed against the ruling of Turku District Court to the Turku Court of Appeal. They claimed that the decision of the District Court be overturned and submitted the same claims regarding the wreck as had been presented before the District Court, stating, among other things, that the appellants had become the owners of the wreck on grounds of possession, that the issue was one of marine salvage as referred to in the Maritime Act, and that a marine salvage agreement had been entered into between the National Board of Antiquities and the plaintiffs by virtue of permission having been given to raise objects, and that the state is not entitled to prohibit salvage without grounds. They also submitted that all the points in the ruling of the District Court which, on the basis of the Antiquities Act, override the application of the Maritime Act, should be overturned as being contrary to the interim ruling of 2002. The National Board of Antiquities requested in its response that the plaintiff's appeal be rejected and submitted that the interim ruling of the District Court be overturned and that the Court of Appeal confirm that the Antiquities Act overrides the application of the provisions of the Maritime Act regarding marine salvage.
The Court of Appeal issued its ruling on the case in March 2005. The Court of Appeal considered that the Antiquities Act does not override the Maritime Act in the Vrouw Maria case and that both acts should be applied. However, the provisions of the Antiquities Act prevent the finders of a wreck from gaining a de facto position of power regarding the wreck on the grounds of possession and the plaintiffs do not thus have right of ownership to the wreck. The Court of Appeal decided that the wreck of the Vrouw Maria with its cargo is owned by the Finnish State by virtue of Section 20(2) of the Antiquities Act. The Court of Appeal also considered that a marine salvage agreement had not been entered into between the National Board of Antiquities and the finders of the wreck regarding salvage of the wreck and its cargo, and nor regarding the objects, for the raising of which the National Board of Antiquities granted permission soon after the finding of the wreck. In the view of the Court of Appeal, the plaintiffs were not entitled to start carrying out salvage operations on the Vrouw Maria or its cargo against the will of the owner of the object of salvage, i.e. the State, because the wreck of the Vrouw Maria was not in actual peril and nothing required the immediate salvage of the wreck or the cargo.
The plaintiffs requested the right to appeal against the decision of Turku Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. They asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision of the Turku Court of Appeal and to confirm that the plaintiffs had the right to receive a marine salvage award for the objects for the raising of which the National Board of Antiquities had given permission after the finding of the wreck and that they had the right based either on an agreement or on first salvor rights to salvage the wreck, all the objects in the wreck or in the vicinity of the wreck and to receive a marine salvage award for the wreck and all the objects. At this stage the ownership claim was dropped.
The National Board of Antiquities also requested the right to appeal against the decision of Turku Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. The National Board of Antiquities asked the Supreme Court to confirm that the Antiquities Act overrides the provisions of the Maritime Act regarding salvage in the Vrouw Maria case.
In November 2005 the Supreme Court made the decision not to grant leave to appeal to the plaintiffs or to the National Board of Antiquities. The decision of the Turku Court of Appeal thus remains in force and the case of the Vrouw Maria has been taken as far as it can be taken in the Finnish courts.
After the conclusion of the Vrouw Maria court case, Finland signed the International Convention on Salvage of 1989. In January 2007 an instrument of approval was deposited with the Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, the IMO. In conjunction with approval a reservation was made under which Finland reserves the right not to apply the provisions of the International Convention on Salvage when the property involved is maritime cultural property of prehistoric, archaeological or historic interest and is situated on the sea-bed. This reservation will make it easier in the future to distinguish cultural heritage sites and marine salvage sites from each other and will thus clarify the application of the law to underwater ancient monuments.
National Board of Antiquities
P.O. Box 913
Tel. +358 295 33 6284
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Last updated 30.10.2015
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