Colombian Deep: The fight over billions in sunken treasure

British painter Samuel Scott (1702-1772) depicted the moment that the Spanish galleon San José burst into flames and sank with its treasure off the coast of Colombia. The original hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
British painter Samuel Scott (1702-1772) depicted the moment that the Spanish galleon San José burst into flames and sank with its treasure off the coast of Colombia. The original hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. Wikimedia Commons

When Colombia announced early this month that it had discovered the wreckage of the San José galleon, brimming with colonial-era bullion and studded with bronze cannons, President Juan Manuel Santos hailed it as an “enormous” find for “all of humanity.”

The 300-year-old shipwreck had been identified, he said, thanks to the work of world-class scientists, Colombia’s navy, and a mysterious, bearded researcher who Santos said “looks like Hemingway” and who gave him a previously unknown map.

But a U.S.-based salvage outfit, called Sea Search Armada, has a more prosaic explanation for the discovery: it claims it found the San José more than 30 years ago and provided the coordinates to the government in 1982.

In 2007, after a lengthy legal battle, Colombia’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the rights of SSA, based in Bellevue, Washington, to half of the riches on the ship not considered national patrimony.

The government insists it found the San José independently and at a previously uncharted site. But as far as SSA is concerned, the “rediscovery” is a backdoor attempt to deny them their share.

Danilo Devis Pereira, the company’s longtime lawyer in Colombia, said the administration’s Dec. 5 announcement defies logic.

“Either there are two San José galleons or they found the same one a second time,” he said from his office in the coastal city of Barranquilla. “If it’s true that they found the shipwreck in another area then I’ll rip my arm off.”

SSA has been asking the administration to show them the site of the discovery, or share the coordinates, so they can determine if it’s the same galleon. So far that petition has been denied.


At stake is what’s thought to be the most valuable shipwreck in the western hemisphere. When the San José was sunk by the British Navy off the coast of Cartagena in 1708, it was said to be carrying six years worth of accumulated gold, silver, emeralds and other riches from the New World destined for Spain. During a U.S. court case in the 1990s, SSA estimated the cargo to be worth between $4 billion and $17 billion. However, SSA’s Managing Director Jack Harbeston said collapsing gold prices mean the treasure is probably worth a few billion less now.

The wreck is also at the center of a more philosophical battle: who should be the rightful owner of discoveries that are both rich in treasure and history?

In an editorial for Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Irina Bokova, the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, said that shipwrecks are the equivalent of archeological sites.

“It would bother everyone if tomb raiders in Egypt, willing to decapitate statues to sell them in pieces, were presented as brave explorers,” she wrote. “Why then are we so complacent with treasure hunters?”

She said the galleon’s hull was stuffed with history “more valuable than its weight in gold” and that the ship’s rightful place was in a museum — not scattered around the world.

Finding shipwrecks is an expensive business; Harbeston said SSA spent about $11 million identifying the site of the San José.

And SSA has built a reputation around the globe. It’s currently working with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands recovering the Santa Margarita galleon.

“We know what we are doing and we are led in the field by a Ph.D. archeologist,” he said. “We know how to do this and we do it honestly.”

Deep Unknowns

Despite Santos’ announcement, much is still unknown about the find. The government hasn’t revealed the exact site of the wreck or even the name of the company that helped locate it. Santos said it was found through a public-private partnership and that those involved would be paid for their time and recover their expenses, but that the compensation would be less than 50 percent stipulated in the Supreme Court case.

In an interview with W Radio last week, Santos said the key to the breakthrough was a white-bearded foreigner who approached him at an embassy reception. The man had been studying the shipwreck “for 38 years,” Santos said, and had created a map based on “previously unknown” information, including wind patterns.

“He’s not a treasure hunter, he’s not after the money,” Santos said of the man. “He has an affinity for history, archeology and culture.”

After careful study, the government decided the claims had merit. It was that map, along with the government’s long and tedious work, that led to the find, Santos said.

“It’s not that some scuba diver found the galleon,” he explained. “It’s that since the seventh August of 2010 we’ve been looking for the galleon — but doing things right.”

Devis said it was “absurd” to think that someone could have pegged the San José’s location just by reading dusty books.

“The only way they found the shipwreck was using our coordinates as a starting point,” he said.

Earlier this month, the company sent a letter to the Minister of Culture reminding them that on March 18, 1982 it had provided a location to the government along with a note stating that the wreckage was “in that immediate vicinity.”

The government has said nothing was found at the SSA location, but the company claims the administration is moving the goal posts.

“As we clearly stated, the site of the shipwreck is not at the coordinates we provided but within that immediate vicinity,” the company wrote.

Devis said that at the time, in the 1980s, technical limitations allowed salvage companies to provide locations with a margin of error — but the margin was never stipulated in Colombian law.

He says SSA has since tried to engage the administration in a discussion about what “immediate vicinity” might mean to no avail.

Treasure Rush

SSA isn’t the only party looking for a cut. Spain initially argued that since the ship was a government vessel the cargo belonged to Madrid. And while it had precedent for the claim, it has since softened that position. And there are those who argue that because most of the silver came from the Potosí mine in current-day Bolivia and much of the gold was from Peru, that those two nations deserve recompense.

Santos, however, has been adamant.

“Now, a lot of people are appearing, saying that they’re the owners,” he said. “No sirs, this is the patrimony of all Colombians.”

Devis and the SSA say their impasse with the government could easily be resolved with a simple boat trip to the site.

“Our theory is that what was discovered in 2015 was the same thing that we discovered in 1982,” Devis said. “That’s why we’re asking them: Show us the site, and if it’s not in the vicinity of the coordinates we provided, then we’ll walk away.”

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