After More Than 200 Years, Sunken Treasure Returned To Spain
A treasure trove of gold and silver worth an estimated half billion dollars, recovered from a Spanish warship that sunk more than 200 hundred years ago, has been returned to its rightful owners after a long court battle between the Spanish government and a Florida-based salvage company that uncovered the treasure.
The treasure, 594,000 gold and silver coins (nearly 17 tons), was salvaged by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007, taken from a shipwreck believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal’s Atlantic coast.
Odyssey brought the treasure to the US in May of 2007, officially announcing the find. Spain filed suit shortly after in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, claiming rights to the sunken treasure.
Spain said its navy warship Mercedes was carrying the coins, which left Peru in 1804 and after crossing the Atlantic was within a day’s sail from Spain when British ships attacked the Spanish fleet. In the ensuing battle of Cape St. Mary, south of Portugal, the Mercedes was hit and sunk, according to the Spanish government’s filing in court.
International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure hunters and the Spanish government successfully argued that it had never abandoned ownership of the ship or its contents.
Florida-based Odyssey had argued in federal court that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, the company contended, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip – not a sovereign mission – at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no ownership claim of the cargo.
But the Tampa federal court ruled in 2009 in favor of Spain and federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld that ruling last September. After being denied another appeal, Odyssey took the fight to the Supreme Court, where it lost in its final attempt to retain ownership of the loot.
“This a victory for Spain and the United States,” lawyer Jose Maria Lancho, who advised the Spanish government in its action against Odyssey, told Reuters. “For Spain, this sunken ship, this archaeological site, is still a warship and we still have jurisdiction over what has happened to it.”
After the US Supreme Court’s ruling on February 17, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to allow it more time to make its arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner of the trove.
Peru, which was under Spanish rule at the time, claims the coins were mined, refined and minted there before setting sail for Spain in 1804. US Justice Clarence Thomas did not indicate when he would respond to that appeal. In the past, US courts had rejected claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the coins aboard the Mercedes.
“Peru is making the same arguments that have been rejected at every level of the U.S. courts,” James Goold, a Washington attorney who represents the Spanish government, told Abigail Frymann of the Mail Online. “There’s absolutely nothing new in it.”
Spain’s Culture Minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, told CNN earlier this month that the case was never about the money.
“We’re not going to use this money for purposes other than artistic exhibition, but this is something that enriches our material, artistic capital and it has to be appreciated as such,” said Wert, adding that the coins would be exhibited at Spanish museums, and perhaps elsewhere.
Wert entertained the idea of possibly distributing part of the treasure among Latin American museums, where the coins originally came from two centuries ago.
After crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice, once in 1804 to where it sunk, and then again in 2007 when it was brought to the US, the treasure finally made a third Atlantic crossing on Friday night by two Spanish military planes, touching down Saturday morning in Madrid.
The treasure will be turned over to Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard for safekeeping, said a Spanish Defense Ministry official at the Torrejon air force base in Madrid.
The Spanish government could still bring charges against Odyssey for damages to cultural heritage, damages to archaeological sites and trafficking in archaeological heritage.
Local media citing Spanish government sources reported part of the ship’s cargo was still in Gibraltar, a British-administered territory in southern Spain whose sovereignty is disputed by the Spanish government.
“We are in touch with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As yet, we do not have any confirmation that any of the ship’s contents are in Gibraltar,” a British Embassy spokesman said in Madrid.
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