The U.S. Naval Historical Center, now NHHC, learned in the fall of 2000 that Arqueonautas Worldwide Arqueologia Subaquatica SA, had apparently located the site of the sunken sloop USS Yorktown and recovered artifacts from the debris field. Yorktown was part of the "African Squadron" when it sank on 6 September 1850 on a reef at Isle de Mayo in the Cape Verde Islands.
Later, it was learned that some or all of the artifacts were offered for sale through the auction house Sotheby's of London. In the spring of 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of the Navy, wrote Sotheby's to inform them that the United States claimed ownership of the subject artifacts. Included as background information was a link to the NHHC's web site, specifically to a page containing Frequently Asked Questions concerning sunken naval vessels. Among other things, the page includes information on the permits that can be obtained for performing marine archaeological research concerning such vessels.
Artifacts that were apparently offered for auction sale by Sotheby's, Sale No. L00724 on December 19, 2000, Lots 453-457, include the following:
- Lot 453 "An American naval sword handle and guard. American, early 19th century decorated on either side with an American eagle. Length 13 cm., 5 in."
- Lot 454 "A U.S. Navy brass powder flask. American, early 18th century decorated on both sides with anchor and lettered U.S.N., length 19cm., 7 2 in."
- Lot 455 "A collection of artefacts. American, early 19th century comprising a brass pulley roller stamped GNY, a pewter candlestick holder, a silver plated teaspoon inscribed Frailey, five uniform brass buttons and a brass uniform belt buckle (9)."
- Lot 456 "Coins. Mexico, Republic 8 reales (28); Bolivia, 8 soles (2); Brazil (2 coins) comprising Mexico, Durango mint (4); 1832, 1834, 1837, 1846, all assayer RM, Guadalaxara, 1840, assayer MC, Guanaxuato (4), 1835, 1838, both assayer PJ, 1843, 1845, both assayer PM, Mexico City mint, 1846, assayer PJ, San Luis Potosi mint (4), 1837, 1839, 1842, all assayer JS, 1845, assayer AM, Zacatecas mint (14), 1837, 1840, 1841 (2), 1842 (2), 1843, 1844, 1845, 1846 (2), 1847, all assayer OM; Bolivia, 8 soles (2), both 1847 assayer R; Brazil, 960 reis, 1817 and 200 reis, 1690 (32) all water-worn, some fine"
- Lot 457 "Coins U.S.A., half-dollars (8) 1822 (?), 1827, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1837, 1840, 1847 (8) all water-worn, first two and seventh considerably buckled, poor to fine."
Sotheby's then wrote the purchasers of the five lots, and included the information from the government's letter. Based on this information, Sotheby's asked its purchasers to return the artifacts, agreed to refund the purchase price for them, and further agreed to transfer the artifacts to the United States. Sotheby's and some of its purchasers were cooperative in endeavoring to return those artifacts that had not already been resold. This action is commendable.
As to other artifacts removed from the Yorktown site without the Navy's permission, as well as to those artifacts removed without permission from other sunken U.S. Naval vessels or aircraft, the U.S. Navy has a strong policy against paying money for the return of its own property. All such craft are now also subject to 2004's Sunken Military Craft Act, which affords protetction to all sunken U.S. Navy ships and aircraft no matter the date or location of loss. The Navy will not abandon its claims to material taken from these sites, and at any time it may renew its efforts to obtain such property, even after the passage of many years. However, the Navy also attempts to commend appropriately those individuals and organizations (as above) who assist, sometimes at a loss to themselves, in the voluntary return of Navy property.
If you have any information concerning artifacts removed from the sloop Yorktown or from any other sunken U.S. Naval vessel or aircraft, please contact NHHC's Underwater Archaeology Branch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to 805 Kidder Breese St. SE, Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374. See also our Artifact Return Program page.
* No assertion is made that the parties participating in (a) the removal of artifacts from the Yorktown debris site -- apparently with the approval of the Government of the Cape Verde Islands -- and/or (b) the later sale of those artifacts, were then aware of the U.S. Navy's permitting requirements or of the relevant case law on the issue of U.S. ownership of such military artifacts.