I'm not an expert on the topic... but I was always under the impression that it was something along the lines of "finders keepers". I'm sure there are more intricacies than that... Spain thinks the rules don't apply. And so does an American federal judge.
"Spain contends the treasure should be returned if it turns out the shipwreck has any connection to that country's cultural heritage."
That seems like a dangerous strategy for Spain. If the wreck actually is (as seems likely) one of the old silver fleet vessels that carried conquistadore treasure from the Spanish New World to the old country, any number of south and central American countries could legitimately claim to have just as much "cultural heritage" stake in it as ever Spain does. It could open some ugly old diplomatic wounds unless handled fairly delicately.
("Finders keepers" applies in most countries' internal salvage laws, in at least some types of circumstances, but international law pretty much always devolves to "whoever has more lawyers --- or armies, depending on how heated the disagreement gets --- wins". There are some exceptions; pretty much every nation agrees that wrecks of warships always belong to whichever nation last operated them, for instance, but such points of agreement are rare.)
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