A centuries-old Spanish warship, resting untouched at the ocean’s depths for nearly three hundred years, has ignited a modern-day legal showdown over the rightful owners of its invaluable antique riches, estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
According to an October legal filing by the government of Colombia, the San José galleon, which met its fate off the coast of Cartagena in 1708, held “the biggest treasure in the history of humanity.”
Now, over three centuries after the San José’s tragic demise, a US salvage company is pursuing legal action against the Colombian government, demanding a share of the ship’s treasures, asserting that they were the first to locate the wreck back in 1981.
When the San José was lost in a clash with the British in 1708, it was transporting what is believed to be the most valuable cargo ever dispatched from the New World. This included over 7 million pesos, 116 steel chests brimming with emeralds, and a staggering 30 million gold coins, as detailed in court documents. Notably, much of the ship’s cargo was sourced from mines in Colombia and Peru using forced labor.
Over the years, court cases have estimated the treasure’s value to range from $4 billion to a staggering $20 billion.
The ongoing legal dispute traces its roots to Sea Search Armada, a US salvage company formerly known as Glocca Morra. They assert that in 1981, during an exploratory expedition in Caribbean waters, they discovered remnants from the San José wreck. They claim to have handed over the coordinates of the find to the Colombian government under an agreement entitling them to half of the ship’s treasure, as per the company’s notice of arbitration filed in December 2022.
However, the Colombian government challenged many of Sea Search Armada’s assertions in an October response. This includes contesting the notion that the San José was even located at the coordinates provided by the company. A 1994 report from the Colombian government stated that no shipwreck was discovered in or near the coordinates mentioned in Glocca Morra’s initial 1982 report on the expedition.
The Colombian government further contends that Glocca Morra’s 1982 report did not explicitly mention finding the San José, nor did it refer to the ship by name. In its notice of arbitration, Sea Search Armada maintained that the report did allude to the discovery of a “large shipwreck.”
Colombia has since declared the ship and its treasures as national heritage items, insisting they remain within the country’s borders.
Sea Search Armada argues that the Colombian navy later stumbled upon parts of the same debris field they had initially located in 1981.
The company is pursuing a $10 billion lawsuit, equivalent to half of the ship’s treasure’s estimated worth, under the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.
The case is slated to be heard in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental body dedicated to resolving disputes among international entities. Hearings are scheduled for the upcoming months, with a tribunal aiming to issue a decision by February.
The race to salvage the treasure trove intensifies amidst the escalating legal battle. Colombian President Gustavo Petro aims to have the ship recovered before the conclusion of his term in 2026, as conveyed by the country’s minister of culture to Bloomberg. Juan David Correa, the minister of culture, stated that Petro has directed officials to establish a public-private partnership or collaborate with a private firm to expedite the process of bringing the ship to the surface.
Photographs and footage of the ship reveal a treasure trove of fine china, coins, and cannons strewn across the ocean floor, where the San José met its historic end.