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Where there's treasure, there's lawyers

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The government of Colombia has announced that it’s found a 300-year-old shipwreck packed with treasure worth possibly $17 billion — as well as incalculable historical value. 

One late spring evening in 1708, the San Jose was sailing off the coast of what’s now Cartagena, according to one report.  It was carrying 600 people and more in emeralds, gold and silver than the entire national income of Spain at the time.

“Billions in today’s money,” said Ted Folkman, an attorney with Murphy King who has written about the legal conflicts surrounding the ship. 

The treasure was bound to help France fight the British in the war of Spanish Succession, but a British squadron got to it first and unleashed a hail of cannon fire. According to one account, there was so much blood on the deck that sand was put down to keep people from slipping. Just after sunset, the ship went down with almost everyone and everything aboard.

“People have been looking for it ever since,” Folkman said. 

A contractor, Glocca Morra Co., found a likely location of the wreck in 1981. It was operating under an agreement with the Colombian government to split the value 50-50. The contractor transferred the rights to an American company, Sea Search Armada.  Later, Colombia passed a law changing the share available to treasure hunters to 5 percent. Where the number lies in an ongoing dispute, Sea Search Armada says. Meanwhile, Spain says it may also have a claim to the treasure.

“The legality of shipwrecks has been an issue for hundreds of years,” said Frederick Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

In Texas, for example, treasure hunting is illegal.  In Florida it is as well, but certain treasure claims prior to 1988 are grandfathered. 

“The Dominican Republic has an agreement where the government or private company will split 50 percent of the artifacts they get,” Hanselmann said, noting his disapproval of such agreements. “They have a point system where, for example hypothetically, an emerald cross is worth 400 points and a silver coin is worth 10. So they say we’ll give you 40 silver coins and keep the cross.  It all depends on what the setup is.”

Not only are laws different in every country and every state, the facts are often murky.

“So if you have a Spanish ship that sank in Mexican waters, carrying gold and silver mined in modern day Peru, who owns it?” Hanselmann said.

Courts in different places have divvied up treasure in many different ways.  In one high-profile case in 2012, a U.S. court awarded $500 million worth of Spanish silver coins found by American treasure hunters to the government of Spain. 

Mariano Aznar, professor of law at University of Jaume in Spain, has sharp words for those who get too enchanted by riches. 

“I don’t like the word treasure,” he said. “It reduces the wreck to monetary value; we are talking about heritage.”

In the case of the San Jose, it’s also the grave site of 600 people.

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