‘Holy Grail’ Shipwreck With $20 Billion Treasure Will Be Raised From the Depths

At least four parties have claimed ownership of the 200 tons of gold, silver, and gems that have sat on the seafloor for 315 years.
San Jose shipwreck
CBS Mornings on YouTube

A 17th-century treasure ship described by many as the “holy grail of shipwrecks” will reportedly be lifted from the sea floor where it has lay for more than 300 years. The ship’s cargo of gold, silver, gemstones, and antiques is speculatively valued at up to $20 billion. As the Independent reports, the treasure’s ownership is now the subject of a four-way dispute that’s in international arbitration.

The San José was a 64-gun, three-mast galleon launched by Spain in 1698. On June 8, 1708, it encountered a British squadron that engaged it off the coast of what’s now Colombia along the Caribbean coast of South America. The ship suffered a magazine explosion that sent it—and its cargo of gold, silver, and jewels—to the ocean floor, where it remained lost for more than three centuries. Or maybe not, depending on who you believe.

A British tallship blows away a Spanish galleon in an 18th-century painting
Action off Cartagena, painting by Samuel Scott. Public domain

In December 2015, Colombia declared a team of navy divers had found the San José, footage of which found its way to the news. The well-preserved shipwreck was reportedly found in 3,100 feet of water, with much of its cargo visibly intact.

Artifacts identified in the depths so far include gold ingots, Chinese ceramics and tableware, and the ship’s cannons, which were cast in Seville in 1655. Of the most interest of course is the ship’s coffers of 11 million gold coins, making up a significant portion of the 200 tons of treasure on board (which also reportedly includes silver and emeralds).

The Colombian government reportedly says it plans to raise the ship by 2026 when the term of its current president ends. However, multiple parties have laid claim to the cargo, one of whom has brought Colombia to arbitration in London.

Vanity Fair reports that a group of U.S. investors operating as Glocca Morra, later Sea Search Armada, claim to have signed a salvage contract entitling them to half the ship’s cargo in 1979. The group alleges it found the San José in 1981 at a depth of around 660 feet, and provided Colombia officials with coordinates. Colombia disputes this, claiming the shipwreck was not found at the coordinates provided.

Spain, which originally owned the vessel and its forcefully extracted cargo on board, has also reportedly tried to claim the bounty. Bolivia’s Qhara Qhara indigenous group has also raised its hand, due to its ancestors reportedly being forced to mine the valuable metals and gems in the first place.

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