Work to recover what experts call potentially the most valuable
shipwreck ever continues in Colombia.
Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, announced July 5
that the national government has been in cooperation with salvage
specialists to recover the San José, which sank June 8, 1708,
in 800 feet of water off the island of Baru near Cartagena, the
Current recovery efforts require a public-private partnership, in a
mission that is scientifically minded, the president said.
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The San José was part of the fleet of King Philip V, who
fought the English during the War of Spanish Succession. A reported
600 people died in the shipwreck, which happened when British ships
under the command of Adm. Charles Wager attacked the three warships
leading the 17-ship fleet. The San José sinking was the only
success attributed to the British in the event, historically named
The British were able to board another warship, the Santa
Cruz, but little treasure was found. The other warship, the San
Joaquín, successfully evaded capture, and it and the other 14
ships reached the safety of Cartagena’s ports.
The Colombian Navy and others located the wreck on Nov. 27, 2015, a
find that the nation’s president disclosed on Dec. 5, 2015. (This
wreck should not be confused with a 1631 wreck, off of Florida, of a
ship of the same name.)
The Colombian find “is one of the biggest findings and
identification of underwater heritage, if not the greatest, some say,
in the history of mankind,” President Santos said in a translation of
a press announcement from 2015.
Billion dollar find?
The ship was loaded with treasures of silver, gold and possibly
emeralds that would be worth at least $1 billion today, Santos said.
According to Daniel Frank Sedwick, president of the coin firm of the
same name, “the San José really would be among the most
important Spanish wrecks of all time, filled with gold and silver cobs
and ingots from Peru and Colombia.”
Sedwick’s firm specializes in shipwreck coins, and his auction
catalogs include a list of famed wrecks in which coins were recovered.
Notably missing are any wrecks in Colombian waters.
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Another column in the July 24 Coin World examines a VAM marriage
that deserves better.
If this recent discovery is the San José wreck, it carried at least
5 million to 7 million pesos in gold and silver coins, according to
Sedwick’s book The Practical Book of Cobs.
Modern rumors suggest that 116 chests of emeralds were also on board
The San José is “potentially the richest single-ship recovery
of all time,” Sedwick wrote in his book.
During the July 5 announcement, Santos said the nation had
identified an investor partner that would follow the terms and
conditions of recovery, would respect the historical and cultural
patrimony and that would develop the technology necessary for the
rescue of this shipwreck, giving that technology to the government for
A public hearing was scheduled for July 14 in Cartagena, where the
terms of the agreement were to be disclosed to an audience including
the public (but this was after Coin World’s press deadline).
The contractor will assume all the risks in the wreck recovery,
according to a translation of the announcement.
President Santos said that the individual who initiated the recovery
is an underwater archaeologist with a passion for shipwrecks and more
than 40 years in the field.
“He found a document from Cartagena and its surroundings prepared by
a Spanish spy in the service of the English, a few years after the
collapse [sinking] of [the] San José,” Santos said in the announcement.
Upon receiving the tip from the archaeologist, Santos invited the
Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (under the aegis of
the national Ministry of Culture) to begin an investigation, bringing
archaeologists, historians, engineers, Marines and oceanographers,
from Colombia and all across the world.
Three-quarters of the galleon remains in the seabed where it sank,
according to Santos’ announcement.
So far, sonar images revealed bronze cannons, arms, ceramics and
other artifacts in the wreckage.
Treasure on display
The wreck and its contents will help “tell the world about the
economic, social and cultural history of its time,” Santos said. “The
questions we make about navigation, about world trade, about the costs
of colonialism, will find a response after this investigation.”
Colombia’s Ministry of Culture will control a museum housing the
artifacts found in the wreck, the museum to be funded by the investors.
President Santos added that “Here in Cartagena will live forever the
history of the galleon San Jose, of what happened and what will
happen. It will be enjoyed by Colombians and all tourists, scholars,
students and lovers of what was once just a legend.”