Maritime Archaeology - legal requirements

Departmental resources | Updated 5 years ago

Shipwreck Coins and Relics-Your Legal Obligations

The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 protects shipwrecks and their associated relics in Commonwealth waters. It is illegal to disturb or remove items from historic shipwrecks. However, the law does provide ways in which members of the public and dealers can legally purchase or sell coins. The only shipwreck coins and relics legally in circulation are those which have a registration certificate.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act does not prevent private possession of certified shipwreck coins and relics, nor their sale or disposal but it does regulate their transfer. A permit system was established to ensure that historic shipwrecks and historic articles receive protection from unnecessary interference and to provide a means for keeping track of the location of articles that are part of Australia's heritage. Permits are required before selling or otherwise disposing of a shipwreck coin or relic.

Harsher fines apply for failing to obtain a permit for selling shipwreck relics than for failing to notify authorities that you have bought or acquired relics. The penalty for sale or disposal without a permit is a $10,000 fine for an individual, or five years imprisonment or both. A company or body corporate risks a fine of up to $50,000.

A permit application should be made to the Minister's nominated delegate in each State and Territory. Permit application forms can be downloaded here.

In Western Australia this is the CEO of the Western Australian Museum:

Alec Coles
Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum
and Delegate of the Commonwealth Minister for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
c/o Department of Maritime Archaeology
Shipwreck Galleries
WA Museum
47 Cliff St Fremantle 6160

A coin dealer or any other person who buys, or in any other way comes into possession of a shipwreck coin or relic must also notify the Delegate within 30 days. This can be done by completing a Notification of Possession, Custody or Control of a Historic Shipwreck Under Sections 9 and 10 form- one for the former custodian and one for the new custodian. This form can be downloaded here and should be returned to the Delegate.

In addition to the requirements of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, the Commonwealth Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, makes it illegal to remove an historic relic from Australia without an export permit being issued under this Act. Dealers should be aware that there is also State legislation which covers historic shipwrecks, and related relics .For further information about the Commonwealth Act please go to or contact:Museums Section

Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport
GPO Box 803
Canberra ACT 2601
Phone: 02 6210 2929

Wreck/Relic Reporting

If you have found a new shipwreck site or relic please let us know, this information will assist our Museum’s Maritime Archaeologists in identification, management and future inspection of this site/relic. We ask you to note that this information is a requirement under Section 17(1) of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976 and the Western Australian Maritime Archaeology Act under Section 17(1).

Please download the Commonwealth Government form from here.


Australia's historic shipwrecks and their associated relics are protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976. This Act protects all shipwrecks older than 75 years that rest in federal waters, extending from the low tide mark to the end of the continental shelf. The Act also covers all artifacts on land directly associated with an historic-shipwrecking event in federal waters. More information on the Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976 can be found on the website of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts:

The State of Western Australia has its own legislation, the Maritime Archaeology Act of 1973, which protects maritime archaeological sites on state land and in state waters, such as bays, harbours and rivers. Other than shipwrecks, it includes single relics, such as an anchor, and land sites associated with exploration, early settlements, whaling and pearling camps and shipwreck survivor camps.

The links to the Acts are provided for your information only, and a hard copy from the Government Printers should be obtained for use in legal matters:

1. The Western Australian - Maritime Archaeology Act 1973
2. The Australian Commonwealth - Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.