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Columbia Map Spanish Galleon

There’s gold in them there waters; lots of it. The government of Columbia claims to have found the galleon San Jose, deep in the waters of the Caribbean near Cartagena, Colombia. It was sunk there by the British Navy in 1708. It was a big ship: there were 500 people aboard, and a large cargo of gold, silver, and jewels which today would be worth in excess of US $10 billion, maybe as much as $20 billion.

It is, however, a very interesting question of international law. There are all kinds of conflicts: the Spaniards claim ownership of the cargo by virtue of a UNESCO convention on underwater “heritage”, granting the country that originally made the artifacts a claim to them.

Of course, there is also a claim by the Maritime treasure hunters which they base on the “law of finds”, which is an old common law (UK) equivalent of “finders keepers”. Problem with this: none of the treasure has yet been brought up from the deep. And then of course there is the United States court, which actually litigated the question of the San Jose, and directed the finders to turn their find over to Spain, after they go to the expense and trouble of the recovery.

And, of course, ultimately: the country of Columbia, in whose waters the San Jose is located, simply claims the whole thing without any discussion of anyone else’s rights. These questions are a little more complicated than the recovery of commercial debt, our field of work, but it gives you an idea of the complexities involved in any international law question