Colombia to explore hotly-contested $20 billion 'holy grail' of shipwrecks

Millions of gold and silver coins, and emeralds are thought to be within the San Jose galleon shipwreck

Colombia's government has unveiled plans to explore a more than 300-year-old shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea, amid a hotly-contested dispute over the vessel's treasure trove worth an estimated $20 billion (£15.8 billion).

The San Jose Spanish galleon - often referred to as the "holy grail" of shipwrecks - is believed to hold 11 million gold and silver coins, emeralds and other precious cargo taken from then Spanish-held colonies in South America.

A Colombian-led search mission found the shipwreck in 2015 around 600 metres (2,000 feet) beneath the sea's surface.

The 62-gun, three-masted galleon was sunk in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession, after being ambushed by an English squadron as it was returning to Spain.

The wreckage of the San Jose galleon was discovered in 2015. Credit: Colombian Navy via AP

Colombia's government has never revealed the exact location of the shipwreck to thwart amateur scavengers, but has now said it will invest around $4.5 million (£3.5 million) in 2024 to conduct an archaeological exploration.

The mission, which will start this spring, seeks to discover what life was like for the 600 people on board the ship when it sank, and to study daily life, the cargo, artillery and merchandise of the colonial era in South America, a spokesperson for the Colombian Institute of Archeology and History (ICANH) said.

Additionally, information will be collected to understand which pieces of the shipwreck are suitable to be extracted, with Colombian Culture Minister Juan David Correa saying: "History is the treasure."

However, that view is not universally shared, and the San Jose has been the subject of a legal battle in recent years over who owns the rights to its sunken treasure.

Colombia says its mission will explore what life was like for the crew of the San Jose galleon. Credit: Colombian Navy via AP

Spain lay claim to the cargo owing to it being a Spanish galleon, while Bolivia's Qhara Qhara people, who were forced to mine the rare materials by their Spanish colonisers, argue they should inherit the treasure.

Colombia's government, meanwhile, is currently engaged in a multi-billion pound legal dispute with an American firm, called Sea Search Armada, over the San Jose's economic rights.

The company is claiming $10 billion (£7.9 billion) in arbitration or 50% of what the shipwreck's total worth is thought to be.

Sea Search Armada acquired the rights of a separate company, Glocca Morra, which previously claimed it found the San Jose in 1982 and was granted a percentage of any items that were recovered.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...