Sea Search Armada, a US-based salvage company, claims the Republic of Colombia owes it $4 billion to $17 billion for breaching a contract granting it the right to salvage the galleon San Jose, sunk by the British Navy on June 8, 1708.
The Spanish galleon San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia on June 8, 1708, when a mysterious explosion sent it to the bottom of the sea with gold, silver and emeralds owned by private Peruvian and European merchants, and lies about 700 feet below the water's surface, a few miles from the historic Caribbean port of Cartagena, on the edge of the Continental Shelf.
Jack Harbeston, managing director of the Cayman Islands-registered commercial salvage company Sea Search Armada, who has taken on seven Colombian administrations during two decades in a legal fight to claim half the sunken hulk's riches.
“If I had known it was going to take this long, I wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place,” said Harbeston, 75, who lives in Bellevue, Wash.
The 41-page federal lawsuit outlines a long, tortuous jpurney through the Colombian courts after the Glocca Morra Co. identified six shipwreck locations, between 1980 and 1985, operating with permission of Colombia's Direccion General Maritima.
Harbeston claims he and a group of 100 U.S. investors – among them the late actor Michael Landon and the late convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman – invested more than $12 million since a deal was signed with Colombia in 1979 giving Sea Search exclusive rights to search for the San Jose and 50 percent of whatever they find.
Colombia tried to weasel out of the deal after Sea Search recovered materials from the ship, proving it was down there. Colombia "delayed signing the written agreement it had drafted, and eventually refused to sign the offer it had made to SSA," the complaint states. But nonetheless Colombia refused to let it salvage the shipwreck.
All that changed in 1984, when then-Colombian President Belisario Betancur signed a decree reducing Sea Search's share from 50 percent to a 5 percent “finder's fee.”
Sea Search sued in Colombia, calling the Seizure Law retroactive and unconstitutional, and the Colombian Supreme Court agreed in 1994, giving Sea Search rights to 50 percent of the San Jose treasure, and the other half to Colombia, according to the complaint.
Sea Search says Colombia still refuses to let it salvage the shipwreck, and has taken a series of actions in bad faith, for decades, to prevent it from doing so. It demands $4 bill to $17 billion - the estimated value of the treasure - and damages for breach of contract and conversion, and enforcement of the foreign judgment.
The real value is impossible to calculate because the ship's manifests have disappeared. The San Jose is known to have been part of Spain's only royal convoy to try to bring colonial bullion home to King Philip V during the War of Spanish Succession with England from 1701 to 1714.
“Without a doubt, the San Jose is the Holy Grail of treasure shipwrecks,” said Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval War College Museum in Newport, R.I.