Sunken Treasures and Legal Battles for Gold Bullion

It seems to be that coin values remain high, no matter the century. Who would have imagined that three hundred years later, the gold- and silver-filled treasure trunks that gave rise to intense sea and land combat would continue to be the origin of conflict? Needless to say, a great deal of modern-day battle is waged through highly stylized trial court proceedings, but the stakes remain just as high. As an example, it was only last month that a U.S. federal court dismissed an American company’s claims to a portion of a sunken treasure near the Colombian coast. Reason for dismissal? Expired statute of limitations — (very) tough luck!

A royal Spanish galleon, which went down in a violent skirmish in 1708, became the watery grave to a fortune that’s estimated to be worth billions. Alas, Morgan dollars cannot be expected to show up there — the U.S. Mint did not yet exist when the ship sank! — much to the chagrin of a great many coin collectors. The old ship’s name is San José, but don’t be surprised if you catch sight of it being affectionately called “Saintly Zé.” That might be some ludic wordplay among the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian press, but what’s certainly no joke is the $4 billion to $17 billion that comprises the prize. It’s all in gold, silver, and glistening emeralds.

The present battle, which has been going on since the nineties, is being waged by Sea Search Armada, an American company from Seattle, Washington, and the Colombian government. Gold, in the form of gold bullion or centuries-old gold coins, is certainly a prize worth a good legal fight — attorney fees and all.

It seems that though the ship’s location was discovered back in 1981, none of its bounty has been hoisted up above water. In fact, subsequent reconnaissance missions have reported misgivings about the authenticity of the ship’s existence in the determined location. Nevertheless, Search Armada is likely to appeal the court’s decision and continue to assert its rights to about half the treasure. Even the deep, corrosive sea cannot do away with the worth and distinction of precious metals in any form.

Sam Walters is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in print and online.

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