Wine Crime Case Study – The Shipwrecked Champers

Firstly, I found this story on the Decanter.com blog as part of a news item. I am merely interested in some questions the facts suggested to my mind; I have no wish to suggest that anyone mentioned in the news item was involved in any criminal activity whatsoever. If I fail in this regard, I apologise unreservedly. As far as I am concerned this post relates to a hypothetical situation and an interesting puzzle – nothing more.

The story that caught my eye discussed the sale of the private cellar of the co-founder of YSL which contained a number of vintage wines and champagnes, including the following one in particular:

The Heidsieck** Monopole 1907 comes from a shipwreck. In 1916, Heidsieck Monopole shipped 3,000 bottles to the Imperial Russian Army aboard the schooner Joenkoeping*. But on 3 November 1916, the Joenkoeping was attacked and sunk by a German submarine. In July 1998, at the eastern point of the Baltic Sea, a Swedish submarine expedition found the wreck of the Joenkoeping at a depth of 300 ft and succeeded in salvaging 2,400 bottles
.

Again, I reiterate that I am not for one moment suggesting that anyone has done anything wrong and I am absolutely certain that a full provenance has been accounted for. BUT…

The key word in the article above is “salvaged” – this immediately explains that the retrieval was entirely lawful and there are no issues. But let us suppose that someone had gone diving, found the wreck and succeeded in liberating a number of bottles. What then? Allowing that my knowledge of maritime law is not great, I wonder if a shipwreck ought to be treated in the same light as an archaeological site, and consequently anything removed from that site could be considered looted. Therefore, that would mean the champagne recovered would be illicit; although if said diver went to an auction house and said “Look, I’ve got this champagne that my late father salvaged from a shipwreck, would you auction it for me?” I’m not sure what kind of authentication or provenance searches they could do to verify that it came from this shipwreck rather than that one, and was looted rather than salvaged, although I’d be intrigued to find out.

The second question would then be – who was the legal owner of the looted champagne? I am assuming that there was a consignment note for the delivery to the Imperial Russian Army, so strictly speaking the champagne would belong to them. But as they no longer exist, would ownership then pass to their successors in title, i.e. the Red Army? I am not certain this question would arise in the event of a salvage, as ownership is one of the first things that is sorted out before the operation gets underway, but in terms of repatriation of my hypothetical looted champagne – where does it go? Unlike an antiquity, it would be pointless trying to offer it to a museum; should it go back to the chateau? Or would the auction house sell it as “vintage champagne, provenance unknown” and let the market decide? I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know.

I’ve never given much thought about wine crime, antiquities looting and repatriation issues until I did this wonderful online course through Futurelearn on the subject***, run by Dr Donna Yates and others of the University of Glasgow. I think Dr Yates has inadvertently changed my life. I don’t blame her, I just wish I’d come across all this twenty years ago. I might then have a better idea of what I was thinking about.

But for now, I shall enjoy speculating idly over a cup of tea and my knitting.

* For some reason, I’ve forgotten how to do umlauts on my laptop. Sorry.
** I really must stop calling this “Hide and Seek” but it’s how I remember how to spell it.
***Antiquities and Art Crime. I believe it is running again in September. Highly recommended and completely free. What’s not to love? I may even do it again, just for the hell of it.

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