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Who gets the multi-billion-dollar shipwreck?

by Greg Klein | December 7, 2015

The December 5 announcement that Colombia may have located history’s greatest sunken treasure brought wide-ranging estimates of gold worth up to $17 billion. An American company called Sea Search Armada says it found the Spanish galleon back in 1981. Spain continues to claim ownership of its ships lost at sea. The United Nations, meanwhile, considers such loot to be cultural artefacts that should be preserved in museums.

Who gets the multi-billion-dollar shipwreck?

A remote-controlled submarine took photos from the wreck
at a secret location in Colombian Caribbean waters.
Photo: Colombian Ministry of Culture

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suggested the ship was found in a different location than the Sea Search claim, according to an Associated Press story published by the CBC. The exact location remains a state secret, he said.

But a lawyer representing Sea Search told AP, “The government may have been the one to find it but this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982.”

The company says Colombia gave Sea Search a 35% share in a deal that the government later overturned. While the country claims a court challenge was settled in its favour, “nothing could be further from the truth,” Sea Search managing director Jack Harbeston told CNN.

Meanwhile Spain watches closely. Spanish culture secretary José Maria Lasalle said his country will consider “what action to take in defence of what we consider to be our sunken wealth and in accordance with UNESCO agreements that our country signed,” the Guardian reported.

In a New York Times story about another disputed Spanish galleon christened San José, Ulrike Guérin of UNESCO’s underwater culture program said the organization wants to stop the practice of commercial salvaging, which can damage archeological sites.

“Critics say buried coins and loot should be studied and preserved in a museum, not sported around an investor’s neck,” the NYT stated.

But if the booty’s worth billions, it’s hard to imagine cultural preservation taking priority over profit. And, given the likelihood that at least some of the gold was plundered from natives in the first place, another ownership claim could be pending.

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