Colombia Discovers 300-Year-Old Shipwreck Worth Over $1 Billion

The price of silver has dropped, but the haul was once estimated at $17 billion.

Samuel Scott, Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708, a depiction of the battled that sunk the Spanish galleon San Jose. Photo: Samuel Scott.
Samuel Scott, Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708, a depiction of the battled that sunk the Spanish galleon San Jose. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the world’s most famous shipwrecks, the galleon San Jose, home to perhaps billions of dollars in sunken treasures, has been discovered after over 300 years off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. The country is reportedly already planning to build a new museum to house the recovered riches.

The ship was sunk by the British near the Caribbean’s Islas del Rosario in 1708, during the War of Spanish Succession. The vessel was headed back to Spain, transporting gold, silver, and other valuable cargo from the colonies to King Philip V. There were few survivors among the 600-person crew.

The news of the discovery, which was made November 27, was announced on Friday in a Tweet by Colombian president Jean Manuel Santos reading “Great news! We have found the San Jose galleon!”

“This is the most valuable treasure that has been found in the history of humanity,” he said during a press conference officially detailing the find the following day.

The wreck was identified by its unique dolphin-engraved bronze cannons. “The amount and type of the material leave no doubt,” Ernesto Montenegro, head of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, told AFP.

An artist's depiction of a 16th-century Spanish galleon. Photo: courtesy Hulton Archive.

An artist’s depiction of a 16th-century Spanish galleon.
Photo: courtesy Hulton Archive.

Ownership of the find, however, has been contested, with US-based company Sea Search Armada (SSA) having previously claimed to have found the wreck in 1981. SSA initially offered Colombia 35 percent of the treasure, but the two parties entered into a prolonged legal battle.

“The complaint in this case reads like the marriage between a Patrick O’Brian glorious-age-of-sail novel [the Master and Commander series] and a John Buchan potboiler of international intrigue,” US District Court Judge James E. Boasberg wrote in the 2011 ruling on the complex dispute.

Wreckage from the recently discovered galleon <em>San Jose</em>. Photo: courtesy the Colombian Ministry of Culture.

Wreckage from the recently discovered galleon San Jose.
Photo: courtesy the Colombian Ministry of Culture.

He found that Colombia had the rights to any objects of “national cultural patrimony,” and that the country and company would split any other finds, but SSA is undeterred, continuing to claim credit for the discovery.

“The government may have been the one to find it but this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982,” SSA’s Danilo Devis insisted to the Associated Press.

SSA estimates that the ship’s treasure is now worth roughly $2 billion, due to a drop in the value of silver. It was once estimated at up to $17 billion. The cargo also included “trade goods of cocoa, indigo, leather, cochineal, precious woods and many other items,” according to SSA.

Wreckage from the recently discovered galleon San Jose. Photo: courtesy the Colombian Ministry of Culture.

Wreckage from the recently discovered galleon San Jose. Photo: courtesy the Colombian Ministry of Culture.

The company maintains its rights to the treasure, accusing Colombian government of threatening it with military force. “It’s the same mentality as the conquistadors,” SSA managing director Jack Harbeston told CNN.

“The Colombian government will continue its process of research, exploration and protection of underwater cultural heritage, in accordance with the laws and current public policy of the Colombian State,” said Santos.


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