New details have emerged about the San Jose, a Spanish galleon sunk by British ships 300 years ago. It was said to be transporting gold, silver and precious gems collected in the South American colonies to be shipped to Spain’s King Philip V to help finance the war of Spanish succession.
Colombia said it first discovered the wreck, located somewhere off the coast of Cartagena, in 2015.
Billions worth under the sea
The San Jose is one of thousands of shipwrecks around the world and excavating historic cargo is an enticing prospect for archaeologists and treasure hunters.
Last year, the president Juan Manuel Santos said the salvage operation “begins a new chapter in the cultural and scientific history, not only of Colombia but of the entire world”.
Who owns it now?
A country may claim ownership of a wreck if it owned the ship in the first place. Even if a vessel was sunk and abandoned for hundreds of years the original owner can still claim ownership rights.
The decision of who is entitled to keep the contents of a valuable vessel tends to end up being made between countries under international law, says Robert Mackintosh, a lawyer and archaeologist at Southampton University.
“It’s a very complex picture, as a lot of states and people can have a lot of different and often competing interests in wrecks, interests which have their origins in various different bodies of law,” he said.
News reports suggest the contents of the San Jose might be worth up to $17bn (£12.7bn). Although when the Colombian government went public with the discovery in 2015, the estimated value of the treasure reported was between $1bn and $10bn.
Legal owner of the wreckages
The part of UNESCO that oversees underwater heritage sites told the BBC it would be delighted to play a role settling claims over shipwrecks. However, it says it has not been approached to act in that capacity.
Under international law, a country has complete sovereignty over these waters and so essentially can do what it wants in terms of taking ownership, says Mr Mackintosh. There are further legal ramifications if the wreck lies in international waters.
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