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Spain's Day in Court Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Kristin M. Romey

The 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian Wars proved to be the pivotal legal document in an ownership battle between Spain and the salvage firm Sea Hunt, Inc., over two centuries-old Spanish frigates recently discovered off the Virginia coast.

A federal judge in the Eastern District Court of Virginia ruled in April that Spain was the rightful owner of the Juno, a frigate that sank in 1802 while carrying more than 400 passengers and Spanish gold coins.

The judge also ruled that Spain holds no claim to the frigate La Galga, which sank in 1750, citing the 1763 Treaty of Paris which ceded "all that Spain possesses on the continent of North America, to the East or South East of the river Mississippi" to Great Britain. Spain plans to appeal the La Galga decision, arguing that the 1763 treaty did not include sunken ships and that a previous treaty, signed in 1667 by Great Britain and Spain, declared that neither side would take ownership of its opponent's sunken vessels. Great Britain has filed a brief with the court supporting Spain's position.

Ben D. Benson of Sea Hunt, Inc., obtained permits in 1996 from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to survey two areas off of the Assateague National Seashore where be believed the wrecks of Juno and La Galga were located. The permits required that the state receive 25% of the proceeds from the sale of any treasure recovered.

Officials from the National Park Service, which objects to the private salvage of historic wrecks, and the Justice Department alerted the Spanish government to the potential salvage operations. A Spanish naval attache subsequently notified the VMRC that the remains of the Juno belonged to Spain, and requested that operations on the "grave site" cease immediately. Sea Hunt, Inc., asserts that "not a single human bone" has been found in or near the wreck identified as the Juno, according to counsel Anthony F. Troy.

Following the judge's April ruling, Spain's victory in this case may be merely the initial battle in a long-term, comprehensive legal and diplomatic offensive to protect its cultural heritage. Many experts argue that it would be cheaper for the Spanish government to conduct its own galleon excavations, rather than continue to rent or purchase artifacts found in Spanish shipwrecks by private treasure hunters. In a particularly telling incident, Spain had to rent artifacts discovered on a privately salvaged galleon for an exhibit on the discovery of the Americas at the Seville Expo in 1992. "Spain is actively considering further steps to protect historic vessels," said Jim Goold, a lawyer for the country.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America