World Coins

Colombia claims reported billion dollar shipwreck

An announcement of a newly found shipwreck off Colombian coastal waters — if true — could have a tremendous effect on the world of numismatics, shipwreck exploration and archaeology. 

On Dec. 4, Juan Manuel Santos president of the nation of Colombia, announced a press conference for the following day in Cartagena. On Dec. 5, President Santos announced that Colombian archaeologists had located the wreck of the long-sought San José, a ship that the British sank in 1708 amid the heat of the War of Spanish Succession. (And this wreck should not be confused with the 1631 wreck, of the same name, off of Florida.)

This “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 the press announcement.

The title of the announcement translates to “The Spanish galleon San José returns from the abyss of oblivion.”

Connect with Coin World: 

Billion dollar treasure?

The ship was loaded with treasures of silver, gold and possibly emeralds that would be worth at least $1 billion today, Santos said. 

Some in the numismatic community are awaiting further verification that the wreck is truly the San José.

According to Daniel Frank Sedwick, president of the coin firm of the same name, “It’s all speculation at this point and will probably take years before we really know anything. We don’t even really know for sure it is the San José, which 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 from Colombia. 

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 are also on board the ship.

The ship went down in 800 feet of water off the island of Baru near Cartagena.

The San José was carrying an inordinate amount of treasure because the war had interfered with shipments of riches between the New World and the old. 

The San José was the lead ship of the only significant Spanish fleet able to sail to the New World that year; it was a prime target for the English, who engaged the ship, which was thought to have exploded and sank. 

According to a translation of the Spanish language press release issued by the office of the president, the find was organized by the federal government (the Ministry of Culture) and managed by the Instituto Colombiano de Antropologia E Historia (Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History), along with unnamed international experts. 

The announcement suggests that private individual investors stand to benefit financially from any treasure recovered from the wreck. 

A multi-disciplinary team “who understood the importance of underwater cultural heritage and to ensure their protection and the transfer of knowledge and technology” was sought for the project, according to the translation.

Locating the wreck

The wreck site was reportedly discovered on Nov. 27 in Colombian Caribbean waters, “in a place never referenced by previous studies from previously unknown mapping, meteorological and historical studies in Colombia,” the announcement said.

To find the wreck, Colombia turned a symbol of war into a vehicle of wealth.

“For the pride of all Colombians, this operation [was] performed on a Colombian ship, a ship of the Navy, the Malpelo,” Santos said.

The ship was adapted for the technological mission, and autonomous underwater vehicles were used to locate the wreckage.

Among the wreckage are bronze cannons specific to the San José, confirming the wreck, according ICANH director Ernesto Montenegro, in the statement from the government. 

The site has not been previously disturbed, the announcement said. Other objects located within the wreck are ballast, drawers, ceramic and porcelain vases and personal weapons.

“It is early to draw conclusions, but the collected evidence points to the conclusion that the ship did not explode,” the announcement said.

Process may take years

Recovery of the ship’s cargo is expected to take several years, including preservation and presentation. 

What will be declared state property and what amount may be awarded to the investors will be sorted out in the coming years. 

In 2013 Colombia approved a law to define sunken ships found in its water as national heritage.

President Santos said that, because the discovery is a matter of state, many details are being withheld, and there are very few spokesmen who are officially authorized to speak on this issue.

However, reasons for the silence could two-fold: Spanish government officials have already laid claim to the wreck, noting that both nations have agreed to UNESCO guidelines for cultural heritage. 

The case seems likely to become contentious, enter court and drag out over years — and that wouldn’t even be the first dispute over the fabled riches of the San José.

According to CBS News, in 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by U.S. investors including the late actor Michael Landon and convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman, announced it had found the San José. 

Colombia changed the laws regarding treasure salvage, offering a 5 percent finders fee instead of the customary 50:50 split of the value. 

“A lawsuit by the American investors in a federal court in Washington was dismissed in 2011 and the ruling was affirmed on appeal two years later,” according to CBS, adding “Colombia’s Supreme Court has ordered the ship be recovered before the international dispute over the fortune can be settled.” 

Whether the vessel claimed to have been discovered in 1982 is the same vessel the Columbian government discovered Nov. 27 and identified as the San José is uncertain.

The San José is “potentially the richest single-ship recovery of all time,” Sedwick wrote in the Practical Cobs book.

Its recovery and the adjudication of the contents may prove to be the most thorny and protracted of any shipwreck as well. 

Community Comments