Who wants to be a galleonaire?
“GREAT news!” tweeted Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos on December 4th. “We have found the San José galleon.” Colombian authorities discovered the vessel, sunk by the British navy in 1708, in Caribbean waters off Cartagena. It had been carrying treasure from the Spanish colonies to Spain, which was fighting alongside France in the war of the Spanish succession, a struggle for mastery in Europe which put Philip V on the Spanish throne. The ship’s cargo of gold, jewels and silver coin may be worth from $1 billion to $17 billion.
As far as Mr Santos is concerned, it belongs to Colombia, which plans to build a museum to display some of it. But other claimants are lining up, and the law governing the rights to such finds is as murky as the depths where they lie. Maritime treasure-hunters base their businesses on the “law of finds”, a long-established common-law doctrine that gives ownership to the finder. But in recent years governments have passed laws that contradict such conventions, and threaten to strip the profit out of prospecting for sunken gold.
Sea Search Armada (SSA), a company based in the United States, says that it divulged the site of the wreck to the Colombian government in 1982. Colombian law at the time already contradicted the finders-keepers principle by reserving half of such finds for the state. But a new law in 1984 gave the state all the rights to the treasure, leaving SSA with a finder’s fee of 5%.
After tussles in Colombian and American courts the company has now filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that its property rights have been violated.
According to its boss, Jack Harbeston, its plan to get access to the wreck in Colombian waters has been met with the threat of military action. It has spent $12m on the search. Colombia insists that the ship is nowhere near where SSA said it was.
A claimant with a better chance of getting the treasure may be Philip V’s descendant, Philip VI, or rather the country over which he reigns. Upon hearing that the trove had been found, a Spanish official reminded Colombia of his country’s “clear position” on its “sunken wealth”. He was alluding to the case of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk in 1804 off the coast of Portugal (again by the British) and found by another American treasure-hunter in 2007. A United States court ruled that wrecked warships belong to the state whose flag they flew and ordered the finder to deliver its cargo of a half-million coins to Spain. Spain also points to a UNESCO convention on underwater cultural heritage, which gives the country that made the artefacts a voice in what is done with them. Colombia, however, has not signed it. Spain hopes to resolve the issue “in a friendly way”.
With so much at stake, that may not be possible. Up to 1,000 ships could be submerged off Colombia’s coast. If governments want the loot, they will have to give treasure-hunters an incentive to look for them