Battle Brews Over Who Owns 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

US company says it's owed 50%; Spain may want it all
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2015 9:03 AM CST
Ernesto Montenegro, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia, shows a picture of the remains of the galleon San Jose on Saturday.   (AP Photo/ Pedro Mendoza)
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(Newser) – The "holy grail of shipwrecks" has been found, but the rightful owner of its treasure—including gold, silver, and jewels worth up to $17 billion—has yet to be determined. US company Sea Search Armada claims to have discovered the area of the San Jose wreck back in 1981 and says it was promised a 35% share in a deal signed with the Colombian government in 1984. Colombia—which argues the San Jose wreck was found in a different area, per Vice—says the deal was overturned by the country's parliament and it won all legal challenges. Sea Search Armada, however, disagrees and now contends it should get 50%. Colombia's government "keeps 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," Managing Director Jack Harbeston tells CNN.

Harbeston says the Colombian Supreme Court actually ruled the treasure should be shared evenly with SSA. Now, "their intent seems to be to preempt and make moot SSA's right to visit its property." He adds Colombia has threatened SSA with military force, per Vice. Meanwhile, Spain's government is weighing "what action to take in defense of what we consider to be our sunken wealth and in accordance with UNESCO agreements," the country's culture secretary tells the Guardian. The agreements note a wreck belongs to the country under which it was sailing, but Colombia hasn't signed them. Spain fought a salvage company for ownership of a Spanish frigate, sunk in 1804 and found off Portugal in 2007. Peru had also claimed ownership on the basis that its treasure was taken from the Incas. A court ruled in Spain's favor. (A family found $1 million in Spanish treasure off Florida.)

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