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March 2006 Vol. 21, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Massachusetts Wreck Plunderer Returns Artifacts

from the March, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Wreck divers have forever claimed finders/keepers when it comes to retrieving artifacts from sunken ships. However, federal and state governments are more frequently claiming the artifacts, saying that they belong in the public domain and divers who find them dont own them.

In 1935, during fog, the anchored 630-ton Lightship Nantucket LV-117 was sideswiped by the Olympic, a British ocean liner and Titanics sister ship. The lightship sank in minutes, taking four crew members with her. For 64 years, the LV-117 lay hidden in 200 feet of water 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Mass., until an exploration team plundered the ship and desecrated a gravesite.

Eric Takakjian of Fairhaven, Mass., a former Coast Guardsman and avid wreck diver, spent years researching the ship, eventually using side-scan sonar to find it. On July 18, 1998, Takakjian and a team of divers made their first dive on the ship, and during a dozen more dives he removed the ships binnacle, 1,200-pound signal bell, the helm, portholes, telegraph, and signal light. Then he presented lectures, pictures and artifacts at diving symposiums and shows throughout New England.

Nearly a year after he found the ship and began removing artifacts, Takakjian applied to the Coast Guard to explore it. But, they irrevocably denied him permission, unaware of Takajians plunderings.

In 2004, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association, dedicated to the preservation of lightship history, learned of Takakjian and his artifacts and notified the Coast Guard. Larry R. Ryan, president of the Association, said A grave ship should be treated the same as any other grave, six feet deep or 200 feet deep, it makes no difference. We were appalled by the divers actions. I think only a true sailor can appreciate this.

Coast Guard special agent Michael R. Burnett collected evidence, conducted interviews, and located the stolen artifacts. The U.S. Department of Justice and Coast Guard sued to recover them last March. While Takakjian and his colleagues admitted to their plundering, their lawyer claimed they had the right to retain the property. Then the Justice Department threatened criminal prosecution. Their mood quickly changed. They relinquished their claims on the recovered property, and promised to never dive again on the Nantucket. The artifacts will soon be on public display.

Burnett says its important for Coast Guard history to preserve the ships legacy and to protect the final resting place of those who died in the service of their country. People should not exploit wrecks for personal gain, profit and notoriety. They should face penalties, whether civil or criminal.

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