UNESCO weighs in over potential billion-dollar shipwrecked treasure

Posted on: May 5, 2018 by

Last Friday, the UN cultural agency UNESCO called on Colombia not to exploit commercially the three centuries’ old wreck of the Spanish galleon, San Jose, hailed by some as “the holy grail of shipwrecks”. Reports suggest that the San Jose contains a cargo worth billions of dollars.

Colombian authorities reportedly intend to recover the San Jose which, AP reports, sank on 8 June 1708 with the loss of 600 souls whilst trying to outrun a fleet of British warships.

Some reports say that a US outfit called Sea Search Armada first located the wreck site in 1981. Legal wrangling has taken place in recent years in the US, Colombia and Spain as to who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.

As I have previously commented in relation to discoveries off Florida’s “treasure coast” this is the type of discovery which pits the commercial salvage community against those who advocate for the protection of wreck sites in situ.

The New York Times suggests that the wreck was carrying 11 million gold and silver coins, emeralds and other precious cargo and specie from Spanish-controlled colonies. Reports say that the cargo may be worth between $1.5 billion and $17 billion. If correct, that would make the find one of the largest ever lost at sea. Some suggest that the ship most likely originated in Peru when it was attacked, sinking in 1,000 feet of water 16 miles off the city of Cartagena.

It is thought that UNESCO fears commercial exploitation of the wreck and a panel of experts protecting underwater cultural heritage reportedly wrote to Colombian Culture Minister Mariana Garces Cordoba voicing their concern that to recover the treasure for sale rather than its cultural and historical value “would cause the irretrievable loss of significant heritage”.

The letter was made available by the Albanian head of the panel of experts. The letter reportedly states that allowing the commercial exploitation of Colombia’s cultural heritage

“goes against the best scientific standards and international ethical principles as laid down especially in the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention”.

Readers should note that Colombia is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The protections for the exploitation of wreck sites which that Convention affords aren’t, therefore, available here. We will keep a watching brief on this story and in a future edition of Art, Antiquity and Law I’ll look more in depth at this find and the issues which it raises.