updated 7/5/2007 11:22:12 PM ET 2007-07-06T03:22:12

A Spanish galleon that sank 300 years ago laden with treasure must first be recovered before an international dispute over the fortune can be settled, Colombia’s highest court ruled Thursday.

The shipwreck of the San Jose is thought to have $2 billion worth of gold, silver and emeralds in what may be the world’s largest sunken treasure.

The Supreme Court ruled that once the San Jose is lifted from the sea, experts can classify its artifacts following Colombian law.

Any pieces declared “treasure” will be split evenly between the Colombian government and Sea Search Armada, the Seattle-based company that claims to have discovered the shipwreck. Items classified as part of Colombia’s cultural patrimony will be awarded solely to the government.

Laden down with treasures extracted from the Americas, the San Jose sank off Colombia’s Caribbean coast on June 1708 while trying to outrun British warships on its way to Spain.

In 1979, Sea Search Armada, along with 100 U.S. investors, signed a deal with the Colombian government giving them exclusive rights to search for the San Jose and 50 percent of whatever they find. In 1982, Sea Search announced it had discovered the shipwreck.

Two years later, then-Colombian President Belisario Betancur overturned well-established maritime law that gives 50 percent to whoever locates a shipwreck, signing a decree that slashed Sea Search’s take down to a 5 percent “finder’s fee.”

Sea Search, which claims to have invested $12 million since beginning its search nearly three decades ago, took the government to court. Messages left with Sea Search’s managing director were not immediately returned.

There remains some doubt as to whether the ship has even been found.

A treasure hunter hired by the government to verify the coordinates turned up nothing. An underwater video taken of the alleged wreck in 1982 shows what looks like a coral reef-covered woodpile.

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