Ongoing efforts to salvage a shipwreck off the coast of Colombia from the 1700s are making painstaking progress. Moreover, historical records of what the San José was carrying on board suggest that a breakthrough in the recovery process could yield the richest haul of underwater treasure ever found.
Coin World recently reported on continuing efforts by Colombia to salvage the early-18th-century shipwreck of the San José, a Spanish warship that exploded and sank along the Atlantic coast in 1708. (It is not to be confused with another vessel named San José that sank off the Pacific coast of Panama in 1631.) It was part of a much larger fleet that was attacked—with some success—by the British. 14 other ships in the fleet of 17 did escape the ambush. All told, 600 people perished in the wreck.
Researchers in cooperation with the Colombian government have located what they believe to be the remains of the San José. Sonar has revealed the cannons of the ship along with other identifying artifacts. This would be of great import not simply for its historical value, but because the ship was supposed to be transporting a vast amount of gold and silver coins, bullion, and other treasure. Its value is estimated to be 5 million to 7 million pesos at the time that it sank. That translates into about a billion dollars (USD) today! Some even believe there are dozens of treasure chests filled with emeralds among the wreckage.
While carrying valuable cargo was often the case with European ships returning from the New World during the colonial period, the treasure of the San José is believed to be more immense than any other shipwreck ever found. President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón of Colombia suggested it was one of, "if not the greatest, some say, in the history of mankind." Shipwreck coin guru Daniel Frank Sedwick, who publishes many popular guides for collectors and auctioneers, concurred that it is "potentially the richest single-ship recovery of all-time."
Indeed, the recovery of the ship will be a technological and logistical challenge. In July, it was announced that an independent contractor will work under the parameters of the Colombian government to ensure the cultural heritage of the wreck is respected while also working to bring up the vast riches that sank with the San José.
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Everett has been the head content writer and market analyst at Gainesville Coins since 2013. He has a background in History and is deeply interested in how gold and silver have historically fit into the financial system.