Who Owns the $17 Billion San Jose Loot?

shipwreck, San Jose
A diver holds a coin from the wreck of the San Jose, an 18th-century ship discovered off the coast of Cartagena in 2015. Screen shot/Youtube/howstuffworks

Have you heard the one about the sunken treasure? As if billionaire investor Ray Dalio needed more cash, an autonomous underwater vehicle owned by his foundation recently turned up a veritable boatload of gold, silver and emeralds. But this big fish still hasn't been reeled in. That's because there's an ongoing debate over who gets what from the holy grail of shipwrecks.

The San Jose is a Spanish ship that was carrying what's believed to be $17 billion in treasure when it was sunk by British forces in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession, a conflict over the disputed succession to the throne of Spain following the death of the childless Charles II. The ship remains at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, despite being discovered some three years ago.


Researchers on a Colombian naval ship first discovered the remnants of the 300-year-old Spanish ship off the coast of Cartagena in 2015. The Colombian government then brought in the deep sea explorers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to confirm that the wreckage was the real deal. Woods Hole borrowed Dalio's autonomous exploration vehicle — the same one that helped recover the wreckage of a missing Air France flight in 2011 — to dive down 2,000 feet (610 meters) below the water's surface and snap photos of the ship. They found bronze cannons with dolphins engraved on the sides, a feature known to distinguish the San Jose.

Among the shipwreck is a treasure trove of cultural artifacts that could lend some insight into South American and European history. That's not to mention the precious metals and emeralds. The San Jose's contents (or at least the money they could fetch on the open market) is driving an ongoing legal battle.

If you're a fan of "The Simpsons," you know that local Springfield attorney Lionel Hutz is fond of quoting the case Finders v. Keepers in court arguments. That sort of sums up the debate over the San Jose. It involves at least two countries with claims to the loot and one company that says it was involved in the process of uncovering the ship.


Custom and Complications

Colombia is claiming the San Jose for itself. The government has declined to give out the precise coordinates of the wreckage and only recently allowed Woods Hole to make some basic information about the find available to the public. Their position is fairly straightforward: The shipwreck is ours because we found it within our territorial waters. President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law in 2013 that culturally important artifacts recovered in Colombian waters belong to the Colombian government.

Spain has another take. The European country notes that the boat was theirs, after all. On the other hand, many of the cultural artifacts aboard the ship were plundered from natives in surrounding South American countries once part of the Spanish empire, like Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia. At least some of those countries have expressed interest in getting their hands on the loot.


The trouble is that Colombia isn't a party to two United Nations treaties on the law of the sea and protection of underwater cultural heritage. That means international courts are left largely to rely on custom, which heavily favors rights for "flag states" in similar situations. Several countries — including Spain, the United States, Germany and Russia — have officially taken the position that the country whose flag is on the sunken ship only loses its right to what's onboard if it formally relinquishes that right. The precedent would seem to require Colombia to at least get Spain's blessing before grabbing the shipwreck as its own.

And then there's a United States sea exploration company, whose argument is essentially: We found it first. Sea Search Armada (SSA) says it located what's left of the San Jose all the way back in 1982. The company says it has spent some $13 million over the last three decades, first trying find the San Jose and then working to establish its claim to the sunken booty through the Colombian legal system. SSA claims it had a deal with Colombia to split the treasure before it located the ship, but the country scrapped the arrangement after SSA actually found the wreckage.

The problem for SSA is that the Colombian courts haven't bought that argument yet. Although the company tried to sue in a federal court in Florida, the judge there said the lawsuit was filed too late. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court decision rejecting a Florida salvage company's claim to $500 million in Spanish coins recovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Portugal may very well have meant bad news for SSA had the case proceeded stateside.

What that means is the fate of the San Jose — at least from a legal perspective — is about as clear as the mud it rests in. Still, that's not stopping the Colombians from trying to resurrect the ship. Santos recently said the country is fielding offers to salvage the wreckage and plans to display many of the artifacts in a museum.