Salvage is an interesting business. Having been at sea for the majority of my teen and adult life I still don't understand it or necessiarly agree with it.
In my opinion something is wrong when a person with no financial or personal connection to the vessel can claim it's contents. Contents that belonged in some cases to an individual and not the company that owned/operated the vessel. Salvage as I understand it was intended to be used by the company of the lost vessel, to retrieve, collect contents of cargo or belongings that where on the vessel to there owners there by lifting some of the financial responsiblity if the cargo is somehow undamaged. Or in other cases to retreive the vessel itself if grounded or abandoned and scrap it for money by company owning the vessel or for insurance purposes.
It was in the 1920'2 and 30's when salvage as it is applied and used today really began in a massive scale. Before this there was really no way to control salvage by law, as vessels of the wind powered era littered shore lines and often those who lived near the wreck often claimed it's contents because nobody was there to stop them.
I still disagree with the removal of personal artifacts from any wreck, things such as shirts, shoe's wallets things that can be indentified to having belonged to the lost or possibly lost. Things like pots and pans, plates and cups and things of that nature hold no specific personal value or relation to a human life. Whereby pants, shirts, suitcases, shoes, glasses and the like can be indentified as belonging to someone and in my opinion are deemed as a personal effect of those lost and should be left where they lay.
Salvage is a touchy issue, the industry as I have been involved with it in the past is a money making risk, and companies see the retrieval of a grounded vessel as a necessity for money and accountability reasons.
But where should the line or should a line be drawn???
Good question, Erik, and one that's likely never to be answered. I recently visited the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West, after having seen the travelling exhibit a couple of times (and bemoaned the fact that the silver dubloon with gold rim and chain was never to be mine $$$), and nowhere did I see mention of a "problem" with personal effects of the crewmen of the Atocha. Granted, three hundred years ago, and a Spanish ship to boot, might make a difference, and the fact that the controversy with the Atocha arose only over "salvage rights" might be a significant factor. No one really cared about the human population that was aboard the Atocha. Back in the early 90's, I did a dive to see the wreck of the "RMS Rhone" (1867??) off of Salt Island, USVI. Our Divemaster took great pains to point out what appeared to be a leather boot (I wasn't buying that...I think it was planted, and didn't look like a boot), and said that it mustn't be disturbed. After the dive, we anchored off of Salt Island and walked through the little cemetery there, which housed the remains of the Rhone deceased. . I will publicly admit that I took a small, perfectly shaped and colored conch shell off of one of the graves and added it to my shell collection. I did so because it was a recent addition (not bleached and broken) and really had no "personal" connection with the grave. I also took it because the lone resident (Cedric?) was selling similar shells at exhorbitant prices. I am not haunted by voodoo ghosts, but if I had the chance again, I would have left it there, and paid Cedric. I still have that shell.
Salvage has always been about money, it was orginally the money of the company that owned the ship and has in some cases it is still that way, but today it more for those who have money and want a piece of history regardless.
A line should be drawn, but when money rules all the line will be thin and movable.
I think the line is drawn according to the relative recentness of the event (more world-wide communication), and according to the ship's population. The White Star Line counted the thirteen saved lifeboats as its only assets, divided these assets among the claimees, and paid accordingly. On paper, anyway. The majority of the Titanic's crew/passengers were American and Western European. Name and wealth were definitely issues. I've found many arrowheads in the Badlands of South Dakota, the flatlands of Wyoming, and the plains of Colorado. I had quite an impressive collection, but it was basically valueless, as the manufacturers/owners were simply Native Americans....no name or money. The Titanic passengers prevail in history recently enough to provide actual names and lives - which makes them real people. If the Titanic wreck had been discovered in 2085, I don't think there would have been much of a "salvation" issue. We didn't have any problem with digging up Egyptian mummies and burning them as firewood.
I think that is what bother's me most about the salvage issue. There is no uniform standard so things are all confused. Military vessels are completely different then normal ships in regards to salvage, the country to which they belong has primary rights to it for the most part. Where as a passenger ship goes, the first one to find it and retrieve something off of it becomes the new salvage owner and has the right to any and all material on board.