U.S. salvage firm, Colombia and Spain battle over rights to 'holy grail' of shipwrecks

It’s been called the holy grail of shipwrecks. A 300-year-old ship was found off the coast of Colombia carrying gold and jewels worth $17 billion.

But that discovery is causing a bitter battle that spans three countries.

While Spain and Colombia clash over who owns right to the galleon San José, which sank in 1708 while carrying billions of dollars worth of gold and jewels, a U.S. salvage company is also calling dibs.

According to the U.K. Guardian, the San José was the flagship of a Spanish treasure armada that in 1708 was transporting treasures from its South American colonies back to the court of King Philip V. The ship came under attack by a British warship near the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, and it sank to the bottom of the sea. Only 11 of the 600 people aboard survived.

Then, according to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a team of international experts and the country’s navy found the remains of the ship off the coast of Colombia.

But a U.S. salvage company called Sea Search Armada says it pinpointed the shipwreck in 1982 and claims it negotiated with Colombia to receive a 35 percent cut of the findings if it was eventually recovered. Colombia says it plans to lay claim to the entirety of the wreckage – with the exception of a 5 percent finder’s fee, according to CNN.

Colombia is also battling Spain for the contents.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said Monday, during an interview with EFE, that his government will seek a "friendly" accord with Colombia about the galleon.

He said a U.N. convention stipulates that this kind of shipwreck is "of the state, of war, not a private ship," so that "ownership belongs to the state where the ship was flagged."

Not everybody agrees, however.

A Spanish expert in marine archaeology, Miguel San Claudio told EFE, "A find of this kind is an opportunity for everyone. It's an opportunity to acknowledge a common past which we can make the most of," San Claudio said.

He also said that the two countries shouldn't get into a dispute over who owns the vessel, emphasizing that if there is a treasure on board, "It would be a cultural asset, not something to be sold."

San Claudio went on to say that "the best solution" is for Spain and Colombia "to seek a route of collaboration."

The country's foreign ministers are set to meet this weekend at the Ibero-American Summit, which is being held in Cartagena.

"We're going to talk," said García-Margallo, who has described relations with Colombia as "sensational," adding that if the matter cannot be resolved in a friendly manner "they will understand that we will demand and defend our rights, just as I understand that they will defend and demand their rights."

Sea Search Armada claims the shipwreck was first located in the early 1980s by the Glocca Morra Company, which transferred its rights to the galleon to Sea Search a year later.

According to a post on the Washington-state-based company’s Facebook page, at the time Colombia’s statute on rescued treasure read, “Treasure found in outlying territories will be equally divided between the territory's owner and the person who made the discovery."

Subsequent legislation changed the percentage, which led to the 35 percent agreement, but the government and the company have engaged in decades of legal wrangling to determine the company’s rightful share.

Colombia’s Garcés has claimed since the confirmation of the shipwreck’s find that his government won all legal challenges, but Sea Search Armada disputes that.

Jack Harbeston, managing director of Sea Search Armada, told CNN that Colombian officials “keep repeating the Big Lie (which is unfortunately repeated by the press) that [it] ‘won the case’ in federal district court, and SSA had lost its rights to the treasure. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Given the size of the San José booty, it seems unlikely that there won’t be a vigorous and prolonged legal battle.

EFE contributed to this report.

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