San Jose galleon
A Spanish treasure hoard thought to be worth around £1bn was found in a wrecked Spanish galleonReuters

A Spanish galleon believed to contain a £1bn treasure hoard of emeralds, gold and silver coins has been found off the coast of Cartagena in Colombia. The San José sank in 1708 in the Caribbean Sea near the fortified port of Cartagena.

The shipwreck was found submerged off the coast of Baru in what is now Colombia, near the Rosario Islands. It belonged to the fleet of King Philip V, who fought the English during the Spanish War of Succession. It was attacked and sunk by the British.

"Great news! We have found the San José galleon," President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted. More information is due to be provided at a later date during a press conference.

Legal battle for salvage

The news did not shed light on a long-running legal wrangle with Sea Search Armada (SSA) – a US-based salvage company – and Bogota over ownership of the wreck. In 1981, SSA said it had located the area in which the ship sank, according to a Reuters report, but the Colombian government said it was not able to verify its existence at the stated coordinates.

Before the dispute, SSA and the government were partners and, following international custom, they agreed to split any proceeds from salvaging the galleon. The Columbian government later said any treasure would belong to Colombia. In 2007, the Columbian Supreme Court ruled that all proceeds from salvaging the shipwreck must be split between SSA and Columbia. However, in 2011, a US court declared the galleon the property of the Colombian state, according to Fox News Latino.

"Without a doubt, the San José is the Holy Grail of treasure shipwrecks," Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval War College Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, said when the lawsuit was first filed.

Protected wrecks

The ruling could also affect other commercial salvage companies which want to search for more than 1,000 galleons and merchant ships believed to have sunk by Colombia's coral reefs during 300 years of colonial rule. Few of the vessels have been recovered because of the San José's legal case.

The wreck of the San José is protected under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. All traces of human existence underwater that are more than 100 years old are protected by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The convention provides a legal framework to prevent the destruction or loss of historic artifacts, protecting all submerged evidence of human existence that is more than 100 years old.