Lawyers representing the government of Colombia (GOC) admitted in U.S. court March 25 that Sea Search Armada (SSA), an undersea salvage company engaged in a long-running suit with Colombia, was the rightful owner of 50 percent of the proceeds of perhaps the most valuable sunken treasure in history. This is the first time representatives of the government have conceded this point in over 30 years of legal wrangling.
The admission came in oral arguments before the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. over the validity of SSA’s suit. While still disputing SSA’s claim, the GOC lawyer clarified that any part of the treasure, were it to be recovered and be identified as Columbian – described as the country’s patrimony – would not be shared.
The ship in question is the San Jose, one of several Spanish galleons sunk off the coast of Colombia in1708 during a war between Spain and Britain. Estimated to be carrying over two tons of platinum along with substantial quantities of gold and emeralds, the current value of the treasure is estimated to be in excess of $17 billion.
SSA and the GOC initially were partners in exploring for the wreck which was discovered in 1981. At that time, Colombia was following international custom and had agreed it would split the proceeds with SSA if the wreck were found. Members of the Colombian Navy accompanied the search. (Under well established maritime law, it is customary for countries to grant salvage rights in exchange for half of the proceeds.)
The SSA team located the San Jose in more than 800 feet of water about five miles off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Because of the cost and complexity of the salvage, time was required to arrange for investors and the specialized equipment.
Before the specialized salvage could be initiated, however, the Colombian government decided it would ignore the original agreement and would claim all of the treasure except for a 5% finder’s fee. Subsequent GOC presidents supported the confiscation, later ruled illegal by the Colombian Constitutional Court and Supreme Court. However, the GOC has ignored the ruling.
SSA appeals for help from the U.S. government have not been fruitful. Although some Members of Congress signed a petition supporting the Americans’ claim, Congress never voted on the issue.
Said SSA’s attorney James DelSordo, “Although we are gratified at this recognition, my clients would like to finally end this interminable legal battle and get to the business of recovering a ship wreck that has sometimes been termed ‘the holy grail’ of lost treasures. If successful, it would provide enormous resources for Colombia, hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to the U.S. government, a final return for the investors in the project and an abundance of historical and archeological information.”
Sea Search Armada is a commercial salvage company that has worked on numerous ship wrecks around the world and has a reputation for scrupulous archeological rescue. It is a group of approximately 100 American investors who have spent more than $12 million on this project since the initial signing of an agreement with Colombia in 1979. That agreement, the legality of which was subsequently confirmed by the Supreme Court of Colombia, gave SSA exclusive rights for the San Jose search and 50% of the findings of the shared property.