Who Owns the Treasure? 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks' to be Exhumed off Colombia with $20 Billion Sunken Treasure

Last year, another team captured astonishing images of the perfectly preserved cargo found on the ship.

Colombia aims to speed up its efforts to retrieve a three-hundred-year-old sunken treasure valued at potentially $20 billion, but legal disputes have placed the ownership of this fortune in a state of uncertainty. The Spanish galleon San Jose sank near the Colombian port of Cartagena when its powder magazines exploded during a battle with the British in 1708.

The sunken ship carried treasures worth up to $20 billion in today's money, along with 600 sailors. Tragically, all but 11 of the sailors perished when the ship sank. President Gustavo Petro has now ordered his administration to swiftly retrieve the "holy grail of shipwrecks" from the depths of the Caribbean Sea.

Mission Possible

Holy Grail of Shipwrecks
Holy Grail of Shipwrecks Wikimedia Commons

This directive was confirmed by the country's Minister of Culture in a statement to Bloomberg last week. Petro plans to bring the 62-gun, three-masted ship from the seabed before his term concludes in 2026.

To achieve this, he has urged the formation of a public-private partnership. Minister of Culture Juan David Correa mentioned this plan in a statement to the outlet on Wednesday. "This is one of the priorities for the Petro administration," he said. "The president has told us to pick up the pace."

However, mystery surrounds the ownership of the vast collection of gold, silver, and emeralds, which is estimated to be valued between $4 billion and $20 billion, as indicated in a lawsuit.

The main point of contention seems to focus on the identity of the discoverer of the treasure. The San José galleon, carrying 600 crew members, sank approximately 2,000 feet below the surface on June 8, 1708, during a battle against the British in the War of the Spanish Succession.

For years, its precise location remained a legendary mystery.

In 1981, the US company Glocca Morra claimed that it had found the lost treasure and provided its coordinates to Colombia. This came with an agreement that the company would receive half of the fortune once it was recovered.

Controversy Continues

Holy Grail of Shipwrecks
Holy Grail of Shipwrecks X

In 2015, the Colombian government declared that a group of navy divers had located the fabled ship resting in waters nearly 3,100 feet deep. Last year, another team captured astonishing images of the perfectly preserved cargo found on the ship.

The photos show a section of the ship's bow, which is visibly covered in algae and shellfish. Additionally, remnants of the hull's frame are evident in these images.

The visual documentation provides the most comprehensive view of the treasure once carried by San Jose, showcasing gold ingots, coins, cannons manufactured in Seville in 1655, and an intact Chinese dinner service.

The images also reveal porcelain crockery, pottery, and glass bottles.

The discovery of the wreck in 2015, initially made by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has led to a dispute over ownership involving Spain, Colombia, and Bolivia's indigenous Qhara Qhara nation.

The Qhara Qhara community claims that the Spanish compelled their people to extract the precious metals, and hence, they claim the right to the treasures.

Colombia is also contending with a $10 billion claim from the US company Glocca Morra, which claims that it discovered the wreck in 1981 and shared its coordinates with the Colombian government, expecting half the cargo's value in return.

Colombia argues that a search based on these coordinates yielded nothing. However, the company, now known as Sea Search Armada, insists that Colombia found the wreck in the same debris field it had originally identified 34 years earlier.