A federal district judge in Norfolk yesterday awarded a group of high-tech Ohio treasure hunters full title to the richest shipwreck in the nation's history, slapping down in the process a gold grab attempt by 38 insurance companies, Columbia University and the administration of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In a legal opinion that charts new territory in the burgeoning field of deep-ocean exploration and recovery, Judge Richard B. Kellam said any conceivable prior claim to the more than $400 million in gold aboard the SS Central America was clearly abandoned in the 132 years since the steamer sank in a hurricane while ferrying bullion and prospectors from the California gold rush.

"We're pretty happy," said Richard Robol, attorney for the Columbus America Discovery Group, which three years ago found the long-lost ship 160 miles off the South Carolina coast and 1 1/2 miles beneath the surface. "This means every child's dream of finding a treasure ship is not only a human dream but a legal one as well."

The Discovery group, a low-profile, high-technology effort financed primarily by private investors in Columbus, Ohio, had spent more than $10 million in a state-of-the-art deep-sea salvage effort last August when its undersea robot found and recovered from the wreck more than a ton of gold bars, bricks and mint-condition century-old coins. Some of the latter have since been valued at $100,000 apiece.

No sooner had they moved that first batch of gold to shore, however, than the treasure hunters found themselves aswarm in lawsuits, the bulk filed by insurance companies claiming to have paid off on the loss in 1857 and seeking to recover their purported assets. Some of the companies claimed to be the descendants of others no longer in existence. The state of New York joined the suit, hoping to inherit any assets that might fall to now-defunct insurance firms there.

In a scathing 53-page opinion, however, Kellam noted that none of the companies offered any business records in evidence, nor anything more than vague and contradictory newspaper accounts to substantiate their claims. Nor, he said, was there any proof that any of the companies had made even the slightest effort in the century since to find where the Central America went down, much less bring up her gold.

"It is exceedingly doubtful that any of the now claiming insurance executives had any knowledge that their company ever had such a claim until commencement of this {legal} action," Kellam said. He noted dryly that while capital assets of corporations were assessed for taxes in the years before and after the turn of the century, "there is no suggestion that any one of the insurance companies ever listed as an asset ... any of the gold."

Any claim that might once have existed was long ago abandoned, Kellam said. Thus the Columbus America Discovery Group, as the finder, "is entitled to and is vested with the ownership to all of the gold or other artifacts recovered."

Kellam dismissed additional claims by rival salvors Jack F. Grimm and Harry G. John and the trustees of Columbia University, who argued that they had furnished information to Columbus America that had been used to locate the wreck. The judge took note of expert testimony that the information furnished was essentially worthless.

Kellam's opinion effectively turns loose immediately to the Columbus group some $100 million in gold held in the court's custody since it was brought ashore last summer. The treasure hunters, however, admitted to no immediate spending plans.

"I bought a 1977 Chrysler last year. That ought to last another 10," said Thomas Thompson, the bearded engineer who leads the Columbus group.

"You mean are we going to beat it to Bermuda?" said Barry Schatz, another key partner. "No, we're kind of Midwest and boring, really. That's why we keep being turned down for People magazine."

He and Thompson, who spoke by radiophone from the group's salvage ship offshore, said the most immediate result of the ruling will be to "lift a lot of the uncertainty" surrounding the continuing recovery effort.

"We've been kind of nervous at the possibility of piracy out here," Thompson said. "But this opinion sends a pretty strong signal" to other possible rivals for the Central America's gold. "It's much more ironclad than we dared hope for," Schatz said.

Though it has been overshadowed in this century by the sinking of the Titanic, the loss of the Central America was arguably the most famous shipwreck of its time and remains one of America's greatest marine disasters. A paddle-wheel steam packet that plied the waters between the trans-Panama railroad and New York, the Central America by the time of its sinking had carried one-third of all the gold shipped from the California gold fields to the banks and cities of the East.

On Sept. 9, 1857, less than 24 hours from a coal stop in Havana, it ran into the fringes of a hurricane and for three days fought a losing battle against the storm while passengers bailed frantically with buckets. Capt. William Herndon, whose storied bearing so impressed survivors reaching Virginia that a town in Fairfax County is named for him, managed to get the women and children off in boats to passing ships. Some 425 passengers and crewmen were lost with the ship, however, some reportedly dragged down by gold they would not release. It was that gold and more -- no full accounting of the amount on board has been found -- that the Columbus America group first located last August and continues to search out.

While this summer's recovery effort has been slowed by the sort of weather and equipment problems that plague any deep-sea salvage effort, Thompson said, the group has already located or moved to "a secure place" on the ocean floor at least twice as much gold as was raised last year. None of that gold will be brought to the surface, he said, until "we have our security system well in place" as well as "special" procedures for moving it ashore.

Yesterday's court decision was the fruit of a 10-day trial last April that itself sprang from a legal strategy as carefully wrought as Columbus America's pioneering deep-sea robotics. Instead of simply finding and excavating the Central America, the Columbus group brought its claim ashore and into U.S. District Court, successfully seeking to extend to the deep ocean floor the principles of admiralty law that have governed waterborne disputes since the time of ancient Rome.

Under the doctrine that has evolved since they first entered Kellam's courtroom, treasure salvors in the deep sea may claim possession of a wreck by bringing back the first television pictures of it, a process of "telepresence" Robol foresees as valuable not only for the ocean but for legal disputes someday in outer space.