Colombia has billions in sunken treasure lying off its coast. But who owns it?

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

Sitting at the bottom of the ocean, just off Colombia’s coast, is one of the hemisphere’s richest treasures: a Spanish galleon packed with billions of dollars worth of New World gold, silver and emeralds.

The fight over who will profit from the San José shipwreck and its precious cargo — thought to be worth between $4 billion and $17 billion — has dragged on for almost four decades amid legal challenges and allegations of back-stabbing, international espionage and unbridled greed.

On Monday, barring a last-minute court ruling or additional delays, the Colombian government will announce the name of the company or companies eligible to recover the vessel — and win the right to a significant portion of the San José’s riches.

And while the announcement might finally bring the storied ship to the surface after 310 years, the fight over its treasure is far from over.

The latest chapter in the San José saga began in 2015, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a team of international researchers and the Colombian Navy had found the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks a few miles from the coastal city of Cartagena. He said the discovery of the San José, sunk by the British in 1708, had “enormous archaeological value for Colombia and all of humanity” and said it would be preserved and protected in a specially-built museum.

There was just one cloud over the celebration. Sea Search Armada, a salvage company from Bellevue, Washington, said it had discovered the wreck in 1982 and had, as required by law, provided the coordinates to the Colombian government at the time.

From the beginning, SSA was forced to defend its claim from multiple competing interests. And in 2007 Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that the company was entitled to half of all the treasure found at the coordinates it had provided — as long as it wasn’t considered “national patrimony,” such as religious artwork or one-of-a-kind artifacts.

For SSA, that ruling is binding and conclusive.

“We have the ownership rights par excellence,” Danilo Devis, the company’s longtime lawyer, said last week. “There is no authority higher than the Supreme Court, except God.”

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Colombia says it has discovered the site of the Spanish galleon San José, which sunk off the coast of Cartagena in 1708. The shipwreck is the subject of a long-running legal dispute and is thought to be worth billions. The cannons, pictured here, were key to identifying the galleon, authorities said. Presidency of Colombia

And yet the government disagrees.

The Santos administration contends that it found the shipwreck in 2015 independently of SSA’s research, working with international investigators and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In addition, it says the San José wasn’t at the coordinates SSA provided

36 years ago — before GPS made underwater mapping a precise science.

“The Colombian government did not use any information that it already had on hand for this new finding,” the Ministry of Culture told the Miami Herald in a recent email. “We can confirm that the [new] discovery is not at the coordinates provided by SSA in 1982. Once again, the information that SSA is providing is designed to confuse the public.”

The salvage company, however, says it’s the government trying to muddy the waters. Because of the technological limits of the time, SSA reported the wreck was “in the immediate vicinity” of a spot 21.5 miles west of the Barú Peninsula. In 2017, it offered to limit its legal claim to an area 36 nautical-miles around the coordinates it provided and asked the government for a joint visit to the site to settle the claim.

The administration rejected the offer and said that the only verification it was willing to accept was at the exact coordinates provided by SSA.

“The only thing in which the government and SSA have agreed upon, for 35 years, is that there is no shipwreck in the precise coordinates indicated in the report of 1982,” Devis wrote in a legal brief. “Therefore, it does not make sense to verify some coordinates in which with absolute certainty it is known that there is nothing.”

Enter the stranger

Adding to the intrigue is the way the government says it found the San José.

In radio interviews shortly after the 2015 announcement, Santos said the breakthrough came thanks to a white-bearded foreigner “who looked like Hemingway” and approached him at an embassy reception. The president said the man had been studying the San José for 38 years and had created a treasure 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, archaeology and culture.”

Three years later, Culture Minister Mariana Garcés told local radio that the hirsute mystery man’s name was Roger Dooley, a renowned underwater archaeologist.

The revelation sent shock waves through SSA.

Jack Harbeston, one of the founders of SSA, said Dooley had worked with IOTA Partners, a financier of SSA, from 2000 to 2003, and would have had access to the company’s unsecured digital files, including maps and detailed research about the San José.

While SSA spent two years and $11 million to find the site of the wreck in the 1980s, the government’s team — advised by Dooley — “rediscovered” the site within weeks of launching their expedition, SSA said.

“How did Roger Dooley find it so fast?” asked Devis, the lawyer. “Because they had our coordinates and the information they had stolen from us, so they were able to find the shipwreck in less than two months.”

In an email sent through a representative, Dooley called the allegations “absurd and irresponsible.”

Dooley said his research into the shipwreck was done in Spain and the United States prior to 2000 — before he ever had contact with Harbeston’s team. “Discovering the San José was the result of an extensive and complex investigative process that relied on multiple factors and sources of information that were exhaustively analyzed,” he wrote.

And while he worked as a field archaeologist with IOTA Partners on the Mariana Islands, “SSA had absolutely nothing to do with that contract.”

While Santos said that Dooley was “not a treasure hunter,” he very well may reap the benefit of his treasure map.

In March, the government opened up bidding for companies willing to participate in a public-private partnership to salvage the vessel.

Under the deal, the contractor will bear the financial burden of the salvage and building a museum in Cartagena to preserve and display the galleon — a cost the government estimates at $70 million. But the contractor will be entitled to 50 percent of the treasure not considered “national patrimony,” as determined by the National Council for Cultural Patrimony.

Some archaeologists and historians argue that the vessel and the entirety of its cargo should be considered national heritage and belong in a museum, not broken up to pay for the salvage. But the administration maintains that the contract — which forces the winning bidder to assume the costs of the operation — is the only viable way to recover the galleon.

When the San José went down, it was carrying six years’ worth of accumulated riches gathered from Spanish colonies in Latin America. While no one is sure of the cargo’s value, a U.S. court — in one of SSA’s many legal battles — estimated it at a staggering $4 billion to $17 billion. Others have said it might be worth as much as $22 billion or as little as $1 billion.

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The San Jose Galeon from an unsourced painting Unknown

The company that set the baseline for the public-private partnership, and therefore is the “originator,” or the bidder that all other companies must compete against, is Marine Archeology Consultations (MAC), where Dooley is listed as “lead researcher” and “project coordinator.”

MAC, which is registered in England, couldn’t be reached for comment despite repeated attempts to contact them through their website.

SSA and others complain that while MAC and Dooley had almost three years to fine-tune their bids working hand-in-hand with the government, others were given just 30 days. That deadline was extended multiple times and expires on Monday, July 23. But by all accounts, MAC is the only company that has submitted a successful bid. The Ministry of Culture said it could not confirm if there were any other interested parties until after Monday’s deadline.

Nelson Fredy Padilla, a Colombian journalist who has followed the legal wrangling and written a book about the shipwreck called “The San José Galleon and Other Treasures,” said the opaque nature of the bidding has lent itself to “corruption.”

The salvage contract “for the San José galleon is a legal option that has been manipulated by the whims of the Juan Manuel Santos government to favor the interests of the British firm MAC,” he said. “If they really wanted transparency they should have had an open call for bids that would have allowed the input from Colombian universities and scientists.”

Padilla is among those who believe the entirety of the San José and its riches are culturally valuable and shouldn’t be handed over to “treasure hunters” like SSA and MAC.

According to the Associated Press, The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, sent a letter to Colombia’s Ministry of Culture in April also expressing its alarm.

“To allow the commercial exploitation of Colombia’s cultural heritage goes against the best scientific practices and ethical international principles,” it said.

The government denies those allegations, saying it spent three years carefully crafting the bidding guidelines to make sure the nation’s interests are protected. And the proposal was approved by the Minister of Finance, the National Planning Department and the Council of Ministers.

Devis, SSA’s lawyers, says the lack of competition for such a juicy contract is proof that the process is flawed and that most competitors believe that MAC has an unfair advantage.

“The San José is the most valuable shipwreck in history and it’s the dream of every salvage company on the planet,” he said. “Why is there only one bid? Because everyone knows this contract is already taken.”