Colombia plans to salvage storied shipwreck amid legal challenge

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

This South American nation is pushing ahead with plans to salvage one of the hemisphere’s richest and most legendary shipwrecks — even as a U.S. company insists that it deserves a share of the treasure that went down with the San José galleon three centuries ago.

In a press conference Wednesday, President Juan Manuel Santos said an unnamed “investor” will finance the rescue of the Spanish galleon, which was sunk by the British Navy in 1708 off Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Read More: Treasure trouble. Who really found the San José?

Santos said he couldn’t reveal the name of the investor until July 14, but said it’s someone, or an institution, “that will guarantee a process that’s respectful of the historical and cultural value of the galleon,” which the government first acknowledged discovering in December 2015.

Santos said the investor had agreed to a public-private partnership that will bring together a “dream team” of archaeologists and engineers to salvage the wreck and put it on display in the tourist port city of Cartagena.

Those plans put the government at odds with Sea Search Armada, a salvage company based in Bellevue, Washington, that claims it identified the site of the San José in the 1980s. After years of legal battles, SSA won a 2007 ruling in Colombia’s Supreme Court granting it rights to half of the riches not considered “national patrimony.”

The government, however, insists it found the wreck independently of previous research efforts.

This undated photo taken by Colombia's Anthropology and History Institute (ICANH) and distributed by Colombia's Ministry of Culture, shows sunken remains from the Spanish galleon San Jose, on the sea floor off Cartagena, Colombia. The galleon went down more than 300 years ago with what may be the world's largest sunken treasure. The vessel, with 600 people aboard, is believed to have been carrying 11 million gold coins and jewels from then Spanish-controlled colonies as it was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships on June 8, 1708. Colombia's government say the ship was found on Nov. 27, 2015. Associated Press

Read More: Did a historian find the lost Inca “treasure” in a book?

How much the wreck might be worth is a matter of fevered speculation, but when the San José went down, it was thought to be carrying six years’ worth of accumulated gold, silver and emeralds destined for Spain.

During a U.S. court case in the 1990s, SSA estimated the cargo was worth between $4 billion and $17 billion, making the San José potentially the most valuable shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere.

Since Colombia announced that it found the ship, SSA has been asking the administration for a joint visit to the site to make sure it’s not the same wreck.

On Wednesday, SSA attorney Danilo Devis said the government had recently consented to a joint visit, and expected it to happen sometime this month.

Devis said the company will drop its claims if the shipwreck is not in the vicinity of the coordinates it provided to the government in a 1982 report.

“If the ship is there, then all of the president’s plans need to be thrown in the garbage,” Devis told the Miami Herald. “And if it’s not there, then all our plans need to go in the garbage. ... But we believe they’ve rediscovered something we’ve already discovered.”

In an email, SSA President Jack Harbeston suggested that the company might try to make the shipwreck a diplomatic issue if its rights are violated.

“It would appear that the [2016] Nobel Peace Laureate [Santos] has no regard for the rule of law,” he said. “We have yet to see how the Trump administration will react to Santos illegally taking the property of U.S. investors.”

On Wednesday, Santos retold the story of an unnamed academic who had been studying the mystery for 40 years and was key to unlocking the location of the San José.

Read More: She’s saved hundreds of lives — all without a medical degree

In Santos’ telling, the man cornered him at a United Nations event in 2015.

“He had been trying to talk to me for a long time and I thought he was just another person, like so many others, who was searching for the treasure and I hadn’t paid any attention to him,” Santos said.

The man claimed he had found a map in the U.S. Library of Congress that had been drawn by a Spanish spy who was working for the English.

“This map was completely new,” Santos said.

In the past, Spain and Peru have suggested they might fight for a share of the San José’s bounty. But Santos has repeatedly said that Colombia is the sole owner of the wreck, and he’s called on the nation to rally around the find:

“Let’s make of this adventure — the recovery of the galleon with humanity’s most important treasure — one more reason for Colombians to join together.”

For the first time, the National Park Service has begun documenting deep water shipwrecks and artifacts in remote Dry Tortugas National Park.

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss