Who Owns Billions in Sunken Treasure that Lies Off Colombia?


  • The San Jose shipwreck worth 17 billion dollar is the current bone of contention in Colombia.
  • A four decade long legal tussle regarding its discovery marrs the treasure.
  • Both the Colombian and the SSA are up their usual tactics to gain ownership.
  • Meanwhile, the government is slated to announce the legal rights of the San Jose treasure on Monday.

San Jose shipwreck and its precious cargo worth between $4 billion and $17 billion sits at the bottom of the ocean, just off Colombia’s coast. It is regarded as one of the richest treasures of the Western Hemisphere’s richest treasures. One which has seen decades of legal challenges, allegations of back-stabbing, international espionage and unbridled greed, reports Goerie.

Battle Over Ownership

As per media reports the fate of shipwreck recovery is yet to be decided. The Colombian government is slated to announce the name of the company or companies eligible to recover the vessel. This company will win the right to a significant portion of the San Jose’s riches.

As of now, 310 year old shipwreck is being brought to the surface while the battle over its treasures ensues.

The Shipwreck Discovery

It all began when the 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, back in 2015.

He said the discovery of the San Jose, 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.

Defending the claim

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

SSA defended its claim in the Court and the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 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.”

Government Refutes

However, the Santos administration refutes this claim and according to them, the had independently found the shipwreck in 2015 working with international investigators and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In addition, it says the San Jose 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 said in an 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.”

SSA Counteracts

SSA alleges that the government is taking undue advantage of the technological limits of that time. SSA reported the wreck was “in the immediate vicinity” of a spot 21.5 miles west of the Baru 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 demanding the exact coordinates, they stated,“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.”

The Discovery

It’s reported that a white bearded foreigner, named Roger Dooley who had been studying the shipwreck for the past 38 years approached the colombian embassy and from there the government got its breakthrough.

The Colombian president in a radio interview in 2015 said that the “man who looked like Hemingway” 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, the Culture Minister Mariana Garces confirmed that the mystery man was none other than the renowned underwater archaeologist Roger Dooley.

The revelation sent shock waves through SSA.

Aftermath of the Revelation

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 Jose.

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?” said 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.”

Calling the allegations “absurd and irresponsible”, Dooley said his research into the shipwreck was done in Spain and the United States before 2000 — before he had contact with the Harbeston’s team.

“Discovering the San Jose 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.

The new deal

In March, the government opened 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.

National Heritage

Some archaeologists and historians argue that the vessel and its entire 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 Jose 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 $4 billion to $17 billion. Others have said it might be worth as much as $22 billion or as little as $1 billion.

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 where Dooley is listed as “lead researcher” and “project coordinator.”

MAC, which is registered in England, couldn’t be reached for comment.

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 Monday. But by all accounts, MAC is the only company that has submitted a successful bid. The Ministry of Culture said it could not confirm whether there were any other interested parties until after Monday’s deadline.

Question on Transparency

The Colombian journalist and the author of the “The San Jose Galleon and Other Treasures,” Nelson Padilla, said the opaque nature of the bidding has lent itself to “corruption.”

Padilla believes that the entire riches unearthed from San Jose are culturally valuable and shouldn’t be handed over to “treasure hunters” like SSA and MAC.

The salvage contract “for the San Jose 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.”

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Source: GoErie