Shipwreck goods under Spanish Law

During the years of the Spanish colonial splendor between  the XVI till the beginning of the XVIII centuries there were many Spanish cargo and armada ships attacked and sunk by rival enemy crafts and pirates.  Hundreds of years later new legal battles between different jurisdictions and with big amounts of money and national and international interest involved merged rorm those ghost wrecks like the spirit of the flying Dutchman.

One of the most famous was the case of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes sunk by an English ship on the October 5th 1804 off the Portuguese coast of the Algarve and forgotten about for two centuries later until US based treasure hunter “Odyssey “ found the wreck and extracted its load of gold and silver coins that came from America. After years of legal disputes US appeal courts determined that Spain had the right to keep the treasure due to national and international Law.  “Odyssey”  had to return more than 500.000 silver and gold coins and also had to pay to the Spanish state $1 million as court expenses.

Recently, other cases like the ones of the Juno or the Galga or more specifically  the San José,  a Spanish galleon sunk 1708 by the the fleet of Sir Charles Wager before Cartagena de Indias within the 12 miles jurisdictional waters of  Colombia have reopened the legal discussions. In this case it was the treasure hunter  “Sea Search Armada” –  quite provocative name we would say from a Spanish view  – the one who discovered the wreck and the millions legal battle was served between Spanish , Colombian and US jurisdiction.

In the middle of all discussion is the question of  whether somebody who finds in the sea an historic  wreck has any kind of rights before the flag state of the treasury inside old vessel. And also if the jurisdictional waters where the wreck is found has also any right like in this last case with Colombia.

There are certainly important international conventions  and agreements applicable although not signed by and important countries like the 1978 Recommendation of the European Council about Subaquatic Cultural Patrimony, the International Chart of the ICOMOS for the protection and management of the  Subaquatic Cultural Patrimony, The UNESCO  Convention from 2001 and the Recommendation of the Recommendation 1486 from the European Council about Maritime Cultural Patrimony. However not all the countries recognized said international rulings and the legal disputes are served from the moment that each country defends its own position with their national legislation.

The Spanish one is in the recent Ley 14/2014 de 24 de julio de Navegación Marítima, Maritime Navigation Act from 2014, which clearly specifies in its articles 369 till 383 that ruled wrecked goods that the ownership of the Spanish ships or crafts sunk or lying in the sea no matter when and where belong to Spain being the rests, the loads, equipment and any kind of goods are of public state domain, out of commerce, not subject to trade or embargo, and without any period of prescription, having jurisdiction immunity.  This is similar to the US Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA) from 2004. However as usual in private international law the national legislations and the international conventions normally crash against each other and expensive lawsuits are served.  We hope that the example of the Odyssey bring more clarity and transparency for the new cases.

 

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