The Hunt for the Ocean’s ‘Holy Grail’: Colombia Seeks to Recover 18th-Century Shipwreck Worth Billions

The legendary San José galleon sunk in 1708.

Are you an aspiring treasure hunter? If so, Colombia may have just the gig for you. The South American country is asking for help in recovering one of the most famous shipwrecks in history—the sunken Galleón San José. Considered the “holy grail” of shipwreck treasure, the Spanish vessel was discovered submerged off the Colombian coast in 2015.

In 1708, the San José was carrying gold and silver mined from the Spanish colonies of Peru and Bolivia back to Spain during the War of Spanish Succession. But the British Navy intercepted and sunk the vessel in an attempt to secure its lucrative cargo. The haul also thought to include coins, gems, precious stones, and jewelry.

The ship’s treasure has been valued at between $1 billion and $10 billion, according to the BBCmaking it one of the most valuable troves ever to be lost at sea.

On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos launched a worldwide search for investors in what he described as a public-private partnership to help recover the treasure. Outlining the investigation, Santos pointed out that the treasure recovery would “follow the highest standards in science, technology, and finance, according to the Bogota Post

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

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


Additionally, Santos announced plans to build a museum and research center in the coastal city of Cartagena to exhibit and study the artifacts from the maritime treasure. “The cultural patrimony that we have in our territory is for Colombians and is not a commercial object,” the president said. He clarified that he envisaged the museum “not to be a small museum, but a large one.”

Meanwhile, the Colombian ministry of culture confirmed that the site has not been looted and the full cargo on board is expected to be recovered.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the treasure will go uncontested. Colombia has said there are no open court cases relating to the find, but Spain laid claim to the treasure shortly after the discovery of the Spanish vessel. The European country said it is prepared to seek an amicable solution with Colombia but warned it wouldn’t shy away from appealing to the UN to defend its interests.

Protecting its own interests, Colombia in 2013 approved a law claiming ships sunken off its coast as relics of national heritage. The country estimates that up to 1,200 shipwrecks are submerged off its coast.

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