A legal battle has erupted over the rights to a sunken Spanish warship and its estimated $20 billion worth of treasures. The San José galleon sank off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia in 1708 and was recently described by the Colombian government as containing “the biggest treasure in the history of humanity.” A US-based salvage company, Glocca Morra (now known as Sea Search Armada), is suing the Colombian government, claiming it first discovered the wreck in 1981 and is entitled to half of the ship’s treasures. However, the Colombian government disputes Sea Search Armada’s claims and asserts that the treasure is a national heritage item.
The San José was carrying an extraordinary cargo when it sank, including over 7 million pesos, 116 chests of emeralds, and 30 million gold coins. The majority of these treasures were obtained from Colombian and Peruvian mines using slave labor. The value of the treasure has been estimated to range from $4 billion to $20 billion.
The current legal dispute centers around Sea Search Armada’s assertion that it found debris from the San José wreck in 1981 and provided the coordinates to the Colombian government under an agreement that entitled them to half of the treasure. However, the Colombian government denies the existence of any shipwreck at the coordinates provided by Sea Search Armada. In fact, a 1994 report from the government stated that no shipwreck was found in that area.
Sea Search Armada’s 1982 report, which allegedly references the discovery of a “large shipwreck,” does not explicitly mention the San José by name, according to the Colombian government. The government questions why the company would fail to report the discovery of such a significant treasure if it truly found it.
In 2015, then President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the real San José shipwreck had been found, but the coordinates were kept secret as a state secret. Colombia now considers the ship and its treasures to be a national heritage item that should remain in the country.
Sea Search Armada argues that the Colombian navy merely discovered parts of the same debris field that they claimed to have found in 1981. The company is suing for $10 billion, half the estimated value of the ship’s treasures, under the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.
The case will be heard in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and hearings are scheduled for the coming months. A decision is expected by February. The Colombian government aims to recover the treasure before President Gustavo Petro’s term ends in 2026.
Photos and videos of the shipwreck show the ocean floor littered with fine china, coins, and cannons. The outcome of the legal battle will determine who ultimately has the rights to these priceless artifacts.