Legal Battle Over “Holy Grail” of Shipwrecks

December 9th, 2015 by

The Colombian government recently announced that a famous Spanish shipwreck that has been sought after for decades has been located off the country’s Caribbean coast. Known as the San Jose galleon, the treasure-laden vessel was sunk by the British in 1708, supposedly experiencing an explosion before disappearing beneath the water.

Some estimates place the wealth contained on the ship at an incredible $17 billion.

Monumental Discovery

Although the general region where the galleon sank has been known since the 18th century, efforts to recover the famous ship did not begin in earnest until the 1980s. Still, the shipwreck proved elusive. Between the size of its booty and the difficulty in its discovery, the San Jose has often been hailed as the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks.

Painted by Samuel Scott

Painted by Samuel Scott

Part of the confusion may have something to do with the story that the ship sank in a fiery explosion. This complicated what underwater exploration ventures were looking for. Although the Colombian authorities are treating the location and images of the ship as a state secret, they did indicate that the explosion narrative was likely a fiction of the time, often romanticized in artwork (see above).

Handout photo of gold coins and gold chain found in the wreckage of a 1715 Spanish fleet that sunk in the AtlanticNonetheless, experts have made preliminary judgments that they have indeed found the treasure ship ambushed by the British in 1708. (They were after the ship’s riches, as well.) It is believed that some 11 million gold coins were contained on the ship, along with silver and precious gemstones that were taken from South America during the era of European exploration of the New World.

Disputed Claims

While such a discovery is cause for celebration, it has already been ensnared by controversy before the years-long excavation process even begins. Keep in mind that the actual recovery of items from the ship hasn’t begun. The Colombian team did, however, confirm that markings on the ship’s cannons matched that of the San Jose.

treasure-chest-full-of-gold-coins-Gainesville-CoinsThe disputed claims to recovering the treasure has at least 3 claimants. Originally, the Colombian government ceded half of the potential treasure (later adjusted to 35%) to a contractor in exchange for useful information about where the wreck may be. That contractor then sold those rights to a private American company, Sea Search Armada. However, subsequent legislation in Colombia declared 95% of the value such sunken treasure ships to be the national heritage of the Colombian government.

There is no international standard for treasure finders laws; each country has its own arbitrary rules. In some countries and U.S. states, it’s illegal to keep such treasure.

While this situation will be its own long battle, there are also the overlapping national claims. Even though the ship was found off of Colombia’s coast, it was obviously originally the property of Spain (albeit the Spanish crown of the late 17th and early 18th centuries). Because the vessel was lost to an act of war, and was the property of King Philip V and the Spanish state (as opposed to a private company), Spain believes it has a case to claim at least a portion of the treasure under United Nations statutes.