A new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art opening Thursday tells the story of the capture of an 18th century ship and the artwork aboard that continues to engage researchers today.

Organized by Scott Wilcox, Chief Curator of Art Collections at the British Art Center, “The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour” will detail the voyages of a British merchant ship filled with 50 crates of artwork purchased by young British travelers. Professor José María Luzón Nogué of the University of Madrid, who contributed to the exhibit, said that the paintings include six late 18th century watercolors by John Robert Cozens, which have never been displayed before and uniquely showcase Cozens’ early style.

Amy Meyers, director of the British Art Center, said the gallery will provide an excellent platform for the next stages of research on the Westmorland.

“This exhibition will allow the new discoveries to move forward in such a significant way and will showcase them to Yale students and the public with extraordinary clarity and poignancy,” Meyers said.

“The English Prize” is divided into three parts. The first room contains images and documents detailing the history of the Westmorland itself, from its capture by French warships in 1779 to the journey of the artwork on board, which eventually landed in the hands of King Carlos III of Spain. The exhibit then explains the background story of the original owners of the artwork by outlining their European travels on the Grand Tour, the capstone of classical education among wealthy British students. The paintings, sculptures and other materials aboard the Westmorland fill the following two rooms.

But Wilcox said that many aspects of research into the Westmorland remain unfinished, an element of the tale that he tried to showcase in the “Grand Finish” room.

“These three parts document just one milestone of the story. A lot more about the Westmorland remains to be identified,” Wilcox said.

Meyers said this “unfinished” aspect of the Westmorland research is characteristic of several of the center’s exhibitions, though the Westmorland is “particularly special.”

“The depth of richness and scholarship in this project among the international community is an incredible teaching tool, and for Yale students especially. In studying cultural and political phenomena of the past, one needs to look back to these critical moments to truly understand artistic culture,” Meyers said.

Scholarly interest in the Westmorland began in the late 1990s when Nogué and his team of researchers set out to uncover information on what appeared to be ancient Roman urns, in turn discovering that they were “modern” reproductions (from the 1770s) made for the travelers. Surprised by how little information was known about the urns, he said he sent a letter to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes — where the bulk of the Westmorland artwork remains today — asking for more details. When scholars there, too, turned up empty, Nogué set out to uncover the origins behind the materials.

But Nogué never predicted that his “detective work” would ultimately uncover 700 other works of art from the Westmorland.

“We never imagined this would lead us to the rest of the cargo,” Nogué said.

Thus commenced a major research endeavor. Nogué enlisted the help of Maria Dolores Sanchez-Jauregui Alpanes, senior research fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, who Nogué said would prove invaluable in discovering the stories behind hundreds of the materials.

“The challenge of uncovering who these people were and using 18th century archives to find out has been really rewarding,” Alpanes said. “It’s great to look at a piece that we began with no knowledge about and now be able to say what it is, who owned it, and where it was going.”

Both Alpanes and Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the British Art Center, assisted with the curation of the exhibit.

“The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour” will remain open from Oct. 4, 2012 to Jan. 13, 2013 in the Yale Center for British Art.

Correction: Oct. 4

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the new exhibit tells the story of an 18th century shipwreck, when in fact it tells the story of an 18th century ship and the artwork aboard. It also suggested that the urns discovered by Nogué were from ancient times, when in fact they were reproductions from the 1700s.