Monday, June 04, 2007

War of Succession

Who gets the rights to the Spanish treasure lost in 1708 may soon be decided:

The Spanish galleon San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia's coast on June 8, 1708, when a mysterious explosion sent it to the bottom of the sea with gold, silver and emeralds now valued at more than US$2 billion (€1.5 billion).

Three centuries later, a bitter legal and political dispute over the San Jose is still raging, with the Colombian Supreme Court expected to rule this week on rival claims by the government and a group of U.S. investors to what is reputed to be the world's richest shipwreck.

Anxiously awaiting the decision is Jack Harbeston, managing director of the Cayman Islands-registered commercial salvage company Sea Search Armada, who has taken on seven Colombian administrations over two decades in a legal fight to claim half the sunken hulk's riches.

It seems that Colombia's word is something less than reliable:

Harbeston claims he and a group of 100 U.S. investors _ among them the late actor Michael Landon and convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman _ have invested more than US$12 million (€8.9 million) since a deal was signed with Colombia in 1979 giving Sea Search exclusive rights to search for the San Jose and 50 percent of whatever they find.

But all that changed in 1984, when then-Colombian President Belisario Betancur signed a decree reducing Sea Search's share from 50 percent to a 5 percent ''finder's fee.''

Because, in the interval Harbeston's group announced they'd actually found the ship (1982). And, not it's peanuts in the hold:

Harbeston believes that if sold skillfully to collectors and museums, the San Jose's treasure could fetch as much US$10 billion (€7.4 billion) _ more than a third of Colombia's foreign debt.

The real value is impossible to calculate because the ship's manifests have disappeared. But the San Jose is known to have been part of Spain's only royal convoy to try to bring colonial bullion home to King Philip V during the War of Spanish Succession with England from 1701-1714.

''Without a doubt the San Jose is the Holy Grail of treasure shipwrecks,'' said Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval War College Museum in Newport, Rhode Island.

Though it might be as elusive as the holy grail:

In 1994, Colombia hired treasure hunter Tommy Thompson to verify Sea Search's coordinates. Thompson, an American who has since disappeared allegedly with millions in investors' loot from a previous deep-sea find, turned up nothing.

Another oceanographer, Mike Costin, who worked on a commercial submarine brought in by Sea Search for one of the company's early, booze-filled expeditions, also has his doubts.

''We found something, but I don't think it was the San Jose,'' he said.

An underwater video taken of the alleged wreck in 1982 show what looks like a corral reef-covered woodpile.

''But drink a glass of wine and it can look like almost anything,'' said Tony Dyakowski, a treasure hunter based in Vancouver, Canada. Dyakowski claims to have uncovered sea logs that put the San Jose miles closer to the mainland.

Harbeston shrugs off his detractors, saying, ''If everyone's so sure it's not down there, then why don't they let us finish what we've started?''

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