Treasure trouble: U.S. firm launching expedition to storied shipwreck despite Colombia claims

The Galleon San José, from an unsourced painting.
The Galleon San José, from an unsourced painting.

Ever since Colombia announced six months ago that it discovered one of the world’s richest and most fabled shipwrecks just a few miles off its coast, a U.S. company has been trying to make a contentious point: it found the San José galleon first.

Now, as both sides have dug into their positions, Sea Search Armada, a Bellevue, Washington-based salvage company, is upping the stakes.

The company plans to launch an expedition to the site later this year and begin hauling up some of the treasure — with or without Colombia’s consent.

SSA managing director Jack Harbeston said the company found the wreck in the 1980s and has a 2007 ruling from Colombia’s Supreme Court to back up its claim on portions of the treasure, despite what the current administration might think.

He said researchers plan to return to the site late this year on a U.S.-flagged vessel carrying remotely operated underwater vehicles and other rescue equipment.

“We would be recovering artifacts — that would certainly be one of the top items on our list,” he said. The company believes it has the legal right to begin operations whether or not Colombia grants permission.

“If the [Colombian] navy is ordered to intercept us ... there is not much we can do against that many guns and that big of guns,” Harbeston admitted. “[But] I can’t imagine any government directly opposing the highest levels of the judicial branch.”

If a high-seas, high-stakes showdown really does materialize, it will be a confrontation decades in the making.

1980s Claim

Back in the 1980s, SSA’s predecessor, Glocca Morra, allegedly spent almost $11 million searching for and finding the famed shipwreck. In 1982, the company provided a report to the government along with specific coordinates.

The ensuing decades were spent in legal wrangling in the United States and Colombia. But in 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court finally reaffirmed that the company — now in the hands of SSA — had rights to half the riches on the ship not considered cultural heritage. It also ordered that any treasure brought to the surface should be held by the Central Bank to make sure it is equitably distributed.

The ruling, however, didn’t trigger salvage efforts, as successive administrations refused to move ahead.

Finally, in December of last year, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a new team had independently found the San José and that it was at a site never before surveyed. Overnight, SSA was cut out of the picture.

At the time, Santos said the 300-year-old shipwreck had been identified by world-class scientists, Colombia’s navy, and an unnamed bearded researcher who he said “looks like Hemingway.”

Among the organizations rumored to be involved in the 2015 discovery is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Massachusetts-based organization denied an interview request, saying it was under a nondisclosure agreement.

SSA, however, believes that it was its coordinates — not mysterious hirsute men — that led to the find. Since last year’s announcement, SSA has repeatedly asked the government for a joint visit to the area.

“We’re ready to go whenever the government’s ready, and we’ve made the offer in writing five times,” SSA’s lawyer, Danilo Devis, said. “But they keep ignoring us because they know that their ‘discovery’ is a farce.”

Critical coordinates

The government hasn’t provided many details about the find since its initial announcement. But according to correspondence provided by Devis, one of the key issues is the administration’s interpretation of SSA’s coordinates.

In its 1982 report, the company provided latitude and longitude readings pointing to a spot 21.5 miles west of the Barú Peninsula. In that report, written in a time before GPS technology, it stated that the wreck was “in the immediate vicinity” of the coordinates.

Now, according to Devis, the government insists the exact coordinates are what matter.

“The coordinates were never meant to pinpoint the wreck,” Devis wrote in an email. “It’s a starting point, or a point of reference to locate it — in the immediate vicinity.”

What those two critical words mean isn’t clear. In a map the SSA provided the Miami Herald and the government, the company has identified five debris fields within a few nautical miles of the original 1982 San José coordinates.

Despite the high profile announcement in December, the government has provided few details about the location of the find or its plans for salvaging the wreck. Officials at the Ministry of Culture said they did not have permission to comment on the case, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for information.

Treasure laden

What is clear, however, is that much is at stake. When the San José was sunk by the British navy in 1708, it was thought to be carrying six years worth of accumulated New World gold, silver, emeralds and other riches 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, perhaps, the most-valuable shipwreck in the western hemisphere.

Santos has been adamant about who those riches belong to.

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

The government has proposed building a museum in the tourist hotspot of Cartagena to display the find.

Initially, Spain — citing international maritime law — suggested it had rights to the treasure, since the San José was a government vessel. More recently, the government has softened its position.

Last month, Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá Polo said that because both Colombia and Spain have strong claims, the best solution might be to leave the San José at the bottom of the sea.

“Whatever [the treasure] is worth, Spain or Colombia would spend it in one or two years and the galleon would have disappeared,” he told El Tiempo newspaper. “If we leave it where it is, in 50 years our grandchildren can visit that cultural heritage that belongs to everyone.”

Harbeston said he was “very skeptical about Spain’s real intentions.”

The wreck’s historical value alone means that much of it belongs in a museum, he said.

“I can’t imagine leaving it there,” on the seabed, he said. “It would be very vulnerable to looting, especially now that Colombia has made such a big deal out of it.”

SSA insists it has a better solution than to provoke an international incident on the high seas. It’s willing to walk away if Colombia will prove that it’s 2015 find isn’t simply a “rediscovery” of SSA’s find from the 1980s.

“Let’s go to the site together, and if it’s a different location then we’ll give up our claim and lift the embargo,” Devis said. “In three to four days the government could resolve a 30-year-old problem.”