When a maritime salvage company discovered the wreck of a Spanish ship that disappeared off the Virginia coast nearly 200 years ago, it thought it had hit the jackpot. Along with its hundreds of passengers, the ship had on board many millions of dollars in coins and precious metals. Not long after the company had begun to explore and mine the site, it was sued by Spanish officials who claimed that Spain still owned the ship because it was never technically abandoned. A federal judge agreed with Spain.

The basis for the court's ruling is even older than the shipwreck. The judge interpreted the 1763 treaty that ended the French and Indian War as making Spain the rightful owner of Spanish ships that sank off the United States coast after 1763, while defeating any Spanish claims to ships that went down before that date.

The salvage company did win the rights to a second ship that had sunk in the same area in 1750. The partial victory will do little for the company's bottom line, however. The second ship was not known to have been carrying any treasure.