Court denies salvage claim to Colombian treasure

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2011 7:59 PM
Court denies salvage claim to Colombian treasure

A federal court has dismissed a private salvage company's claim to half of a treasure potentially worth billions of dollars and believed to lie in the wreck of a Spanish galleon that sank 300 years ago off Colombia's coast.

In a ruling issued Monday, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg indicated that the statute of limitations had expired on a breach-of-contract claim by the Seattle-based Sea Search Armada company and noted that "no specific money judgment exists to be enforced."

Sea Search Armada has been embroiled in a two-decade-long dispute with the Colombian government over who has rights to an estimated $4 billion to $17 billion in gold, silver and emeralds that is believed to lie in the wreckage of the San Jose.

The Spanish galleon sank to the bottom of the sea as it was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia's coast on June 8, 1708.

According to a summary of Sea Search's complaint contained in the ruling, the Colombian agency that regulates maritime activity authorized the Glocca Mora Co. in 1980 to explore the Continental Shelf for shipwrecks.

In 1981, the company located what it believed to be the site of the shipwreck, and negotiated an agreement with the Colombian government allowing it to claim 35 percent of any treasure it recovered, the summary said. Later, it said, Sea Search Armada "was then assigned GMC's rights under the agreement," and in 1984, Colombia agreed that Sea Search Armada would be entitled to the 35 percent.

Colombia refused to sign a contract with the Sea Search that would have sealed the deal and the Colombian legislature later passed a law giving the country full rights to the treasure, agreeing to award only a 5 percent finder's fee to the company, according to the summary.

Sea Search Armada sued and the Colombian Constitutional Court declared the law unconstitutional. Another Colombian court later ruled that Sea Search and the government should split the treasure 50-50. The Colombian Supreme Court upheld that decision, saying that pieces declared "treasure" would be split evenly, while items classified as part of Colombia's cultural patrimony would be awarded solely to the government.

No treasure has been hauled up from the sea as yet, however, and there even remains some doubt as to whether the actual site of the shipwreck has been found. A treasure hunter hired by the government to verify the company's coordinates turned up nothing. An underwater video taken of the alleged wreck in 1982 shows what looks like a coral reef-covered woodpile.

Nonetheless, the Colombian Embassy in Washington issued a statement Tuesday saying it was pleased the U.S. District Court had ruled in its favor, "denying the complaint in its entirety."

The statement noted that Sea Search would have the right to appeal.

An attorney for the company, James DelSordo, called the latest decision "inaccurate, incorrect," and said his client is considering its options.

"The court is mistaken," he said. "It is sad my client has to go through this, since the Colombian Supreme Court has said repeatedly that the government and Sea Search Armada own the San Jose in equal shares. The government of the Republic of Colombia is refusing to allow my client to recover the property and give half of the property to the people of Colombia."

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Associated Press writer Lisa J. Adams in Mexico City contributed to this report.