MIAMI — The Spanish galleon San José was overloaded with 200 passengers and 700 tons of cargo on a summer night in 1631 when it smashed into a rock off the Pacific coast of Panama, spilling silver coins and bars into the Gulf of Panama. More than 400,000 coins and at least 1,417 bars were lost over a 40-mile trail.
Four hundred years later, that shipwreck has become one of the latest to land in a legal quagmire over who should have the rights to historic artifacts trapped under the sea. This one involves the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the government of Panama and Americans accused of being pirates. At issue is whether private companies should be able to claim and profit from historic treasures.
Those questions are of particular interest to businesses in South Florida at a time when technology is making it easier to find and recover sunken loot. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that there are more than 1,000 shipwrecks in the Florida Keys alone.
In the case of the San José booty, commercial treasure hunters, financed in part by an adventure entrepreneur who runs tours to the Titanic, spent over $2 million and 10 years recovering portions of the treasure, only to see their permits questioned and bounty confiscated.
"They called us thieves, looters, plunderers and pirates," said Dan Porter, a Florida captain who led the expedition to find the San José. "That's an insult. I hold this work in the highest regard."
But the industry is engaged in a battle with academic marine archaeologists and UNESCO, the Paris-based U.N. agency that tries to protect cultural treasures around the world. Critics say buried coins and loot should be studied and preserved in a museum, not sported around an investor's neck.
"Treasure hunters are to maritime archaeologists what astrologers are to astronomers," said Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
The Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into the case, and several criminal complaints are pending in Panama. Those actions underscore the perils that often accompany maritime salvage recovery, particularly as nations become increasingly sensitive to the cultural significance of underwater treasures.
In the colonial era, Spain sent fleets to the new world to excavate gold and silver from places like Bolivia and Peru, but hurricanes and other mishaps often sent ships and the gold they carried to unreachable depths.
Pirates and plunderers have long sought to recover them. As technology to find them has improved in recent decades, many legitimate companies have begun hunting, too, only to find their discoveries challenged in court.
Panama was so committed to preventing plundering that in 2003, it became among the first countries to sign a U.N. treaty protecting underwater cultural heritage. But at the same time, Panama's Ministry of Economy and Finance granted a contract giving salvage rights along its waters to a company called Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, or IMDI.
Investors included a former Panamanian governor; a Mexican-American engineer; Mike McDowell, an Australian adventure entrepreneur; and — for a different IMDI salvage project — Pat Croce, a former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.
IMDI spent about 10 years fighting legal challenges. The company prevailed, and, with permits and court verdicts in hand, the subaquatic dig for the San José went on. Panamanian government inspectors supervised the project, and a "world class" conservation lab was built to log and preserve each discovery, the company said.
Among other items, divers found gold and diamond jewelry, pottery, and nearly 10,000 silver coins, worth up to $1,000 each. Only one 60-pound silver bar was recovered. Based on the contract, the government got to keep anything it considered historically relevant, plus 35 percent of everything else.
Some Panamanian government officials objected to the deal and brought in UNESCO, which sent a task force to Panama to review the project. Excavation stopped. Even after the haul was divided and the government received its share, the country's comptroller noted a number of irregularities in the contract, questioned its validity and requested an investigation into how it had been obtained.
"The government stopped us, even though we did everything by the book," said Alberto Vásquez, an IMDI vice president.
This summer, when Vásquez emerged from a bank in Panama City where he had gone to retrieve some of the company's share of coins that were stored in a safe deposit box, the government seized 3,000 coins, saying he did not have permission to transport it.
In September, Porter, who led an expedition, returned to Florida with his 100 coins, worth about $500 or $600 each. The U.S. Border Patrol boarded his salvage vessel, searched it with dogs for six hours and confiscated the coins.
Citing an open investigation, Nestor J. Yglesias, a spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations, the criminal investigation arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment.
Panamanian government officials requested a list of questions from the New York Times, but did not respond to them, despite repeated requests.
Ulrike Guérin, who runs UNESCO's underwater culture program, said it was not up to the U.N. to determine the legality of IMDI's contract, but she stressed that the agency was pleased to see Panama stepping up to stop treasure hunting.
Guérin said UNESCO was trying to stop commercial salvagers around the world because they regularly destroy sites without giving any consideration to historical preservation or environmental damage. The divers take special care to preserve valuables such as coins, but disregard precious pottery if it looks too cracked to sell, she said.
"This is a fishy business of treasure hunting," she said in a telephone interview. "I have not seen any case that was a success and everyone liking it. It ends up in a slaughter, destroying the heritage."
James A. Goold, a lawyer in Washington, often steps in on Spain's behalf when commercial shipwreck divers try to claim long-lost treasures, including some the government believes were fakes.
"These ships are time capsules that are irreplaceable and should be preserved for public benefit for study by cultural authorities and archaeologists," Goold said.
In October, Goold sent notice to a Tampa company, Global Marine Exploration, which is looking for ships from a 1715 Spanish fleet lost in a hurricane, warning that Spain has not given up its rights long-lost vessels. In 2009, a leading Tampa treasure-hunting company, Odyssey Marine, was ordered to return 17 tons of gold and silver from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal in 1804.
Treasure hunters are hoping for a compromise.
"You should look at these more like an airplane crash or car crash," said James J. Sinclair, a marine archaeologist hired by IMDI to evaluate the finds. "You don't leave them at the side of the road and preserve them forever."