Outside Publication

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Shortcomings of Forcing Courts to choose from the Law of Salvage and the Law of Finds in Treasure Salvage of Historic Wrecks

University of San Francisco Maritime Law Journal Vol. 29 Issue 1


The recent discovery of the Spanish galleon, SAN JOSE, off the coast of Colombia, has generated a great deal of international interest in the fate of its valuable cargo. It was estimated to have been carrying between four to seventeen billion dollars of jewels and precious metals when it sank in a naval battle in 1708. To date, possible claimants include, but are not limited to: an American salvage company, the Colombian government, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Republic of Peru.

This article will explore the ownership rights of historic wrecks, with special reference to the SAN JOSE, when disputes arise between salvage companies and the sovereign nations who have competing claims to historic wrecks and their cargoes. To that end, this article will first examine the history of the Law of Salvage as it has evolved in the United States and how it's applied to historic wrecks today, and then distinguish the Law of Salvage from the Law of Finds, which can also be applied in the context of historic wrecks.

This article will also distinguish the policy behind the Law of Pure Salvage with the exigencies and purposes of Treasure Salvage, and pose the question as to whether it is desirable to treat ancient cargoes the same way one might treat a floating vessel in distress.

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