SUNK in a fierce gunfight between Britain and Spain over 300 years ago, the discovery of the richest treasure ship ever lost in the western hemisphere has sparked a modern-day courtroom battle.

The “holy grail of shipwrecks” is the Spanish galleon San Jose which was loaded with precious jewels, gold and silver – now worth an estimated £11 billion – when it was attacked by the British fleet in 1708 off the coast of Cartagena in the Caribbean.

Ecstatic Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos, pictured, who tweeted the wreck had been found, promised details today.

However as the ship was carrying riches from South America for the war chest of King Philip V, the cargo is now subject to a three-way dispute between Spain, Columbia and a US-based salvage company Sea Search Armada.

Finding the treasure, which was supposed to fund Spain’s battle against Britain in the War of Succession, has long been the dream of many – including fictional character Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.

She is thought to have been carrying two tons of platinum, 116 chests of emeralds as well as the personal treasures of the viceroy of Peru and is just one of more than 1,000 merchant vessels and galleons to have sunk off Columbia.


Finding treasure lost at sea is now big business, with valuable artefacts and pirates’ booty among much of the wealth that has been found.

Earlier this year a silver bar, believed to be from the loot of the infamous Scottish “pirate” who inspired Treasure Island, was found off Madagascar.

It was brought up from the deep by American diver Barry Clifford who was diving at the location of Captain William Kidd’s old ship.

Thought to have been sunk in 1698, the location has been known for years but Clifford said it was too muddy to see the wreck and has only uncovered one silver bar which he found using a metal detector.

Legend has it that Kidd was a pirate who buried much of his treasure – inspiring R L Stevenson to write Treasure Island – but some modern day historians believe he was unfairly accused of piracy by the English Parliament and was denied a fair trial before his execution in 1701.


The pirate ship belonging to the notorious Blackbeard has been discovered recently off the coast of North Carolina although the contents of Queen Anne’s Revenge are of more value in an archaeological sense, as they give an insight to pirate life in the 1700s.

Not all hauls come from pirate ships with treasure found on the British SS Gairsoppa which was lost in a German attack during the Second World War in 1941.

Only one sailor from the 32-strong crew made it to shore as the ship and its contents of £23m worth of silver was sunk 300 miles from land. Found by controversial US company Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2011 it was the biggest precious metal find in history and the firm was allowed to keep 80 per cent of the profits with the government keeping 20 per cent.

In March, Odyssey reached another deal with the UK government to split the profits from HMS Sussex which sank during a storm near Gibraltar in 1694 with £2.4bn silver and gold. The company was allowed to keep £250m after costs.

Odyssey was also behind the world’s first deep sea recovery at 405m which gained the company pearls and pottery from the Tortugas shipwreck off Florida in 1622.


Depicted at one point in US courts as modern day pirates, Odyssey has not been allowed to keep every treasure it has located.

Despite the company claiming it had spent £1.6m in salvaging treasure from a galleon found off Portugal, the Spanish government won a monumental court battle to take possession of the £300m haul, claiming it was part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Odyssey in turn claimed that the wreck could not be proved to be the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which sank in 1804 and that, even if it were, it was on a commercial trade voyage rather than a sovereign mission. Under international treaties, ships used for war are protected from treasure hunters but not merchant ships.

An argument that the treasure belonged to Peru as it had been mined in the Andes also failed because Peru did not gain independence from Spain until 1824.


One of the most famous shipwrecks in history is the Titanic with much of its treasure auctioned off. However while millions of pounds worth of diamonds and other jewels were lost when the ship struck in iceberg in 1912 some items, such as a biscuit which fetched £15,000, were bought for their historic value.

If a biscuit from a shipwreck can make that amount of money it is perhaps not surprising that alcohol can also be valuable with the world’s most expensive wine recovered in 1997 from a 1916 wreck off the coast of Finland. On it were 200 bottles of Heidieck Champagne en route to the Imperial family in Russia. One bottle made £180,000 in a Moscow auction.

Closer to home, bottles of whisky from the SS Politician, which inspired the film Whisky Galore, sold at auction for over £12,000 recently. The bottles were found off the coast of Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides.