One of the world’s most sought-after, fought over and valuable shipwrecks has been discovered off the coast of Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed Saturday.
At a press conference in the colonial port city of Cartagena, he said Colombian researchers, working with a “dream team” of international investigators, had found the Spanish galleon San José on Nov. 27.
The ship, which sank June 8, 1708, after a running battle with the British navy, is thought to be worth anywhere from $4 billion to $17 billion, according to court records, and it was laden with gold and silver bullion.
On Saturday, Santos didn’t mention the monetary value of the find, or the legal squabble that surrounds it.
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“This has an enormous archaeological value for Colombia and for all of humanity,” Santos said, announcing that a museum will be built in Cartagena to showcase the discovery.
Ernesto Montenegro, with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, and the lead researcher on the team, said there “was no doubt” about the identity of the galleon. Using sonar, cameras and submersibles, investigators studied thousands of anomalies and found five shipwrecks in the search area, he said. The San José was eventually identified by its brass cannons marked with a distinctive dolphin insignia.
Nautical Historian Daniel de Narváez Mcallister told El Espectador newspaper that the San José is the Holy Grail for treasure hunters because it was carrying the accumulation of six years worth of gold and silver destined for Spain — making it the most valuable shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere.
Santos said that many details about the discovery need to remain under wraps and that the presidency was the only institution authorized to provide information about the find. In a follow-up statement, the presidency said the shipwreck was discovered at a site “never mentioned in previous studies.”
The fate of the treasure has been the subject of a long-running legal battle with U.S.-based Sea Search Armada, which claims its predecessor found the wreckage in 1981.
In the 1990s, Colombian courts ruled that the nation had the rights to everything considered “cultural patrimony” salvaged from the wreck, while the rest of the treasure should be split 50-50 with SSA.
Shortly afterward, however, the government cast doubts on SSA’s claim, saying that an independent team of investigators couldn’t find evidence of a shipwreck at the coordinates provided by the company. In 2010, SSA sued Colombia in U.S. courts and asked for $17 billion in compensatory damages. In that case, which the company ultimately lost, SSA said it had identified six potential sites for the wreckage.
On Saturday, SSA referred an interview request to its lawyer, who was not immediately available. However, the company said it had proven “rights to 50 percent of any treasure found at the six sites duly disclosed in confidence to the government of Colombia.”
On Saturday, Santos seemed to make clear who he believed had the rightful claim on the bullion.
The treasure “belongs to all Colombians,” he said. “And protecting it must be a national goal.”