June 5, 2009

Judge Rules In Favor Of Spain Regarding Shipwreck Treasure

An American treasure hunting company was told by a U.S. judge to return valuables from the shipwreck of the Spanish warship Mercedes to Spain, Reuters reported.

However, the firm said on Thursday it would contest the judge's non-binding decision.

The Tampa, Florida-based magistrate judge's recommendations on Wednesday marked the latest step in a lengthy battle between the treasure hunters, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, and the governments of Spain and Peru.

The opposing party's are all laying claim on some 600,000 silver and gold coins valued at some $500 million. The Spanish government has called for the treasure to be returned to Spain within 10 days.

But the decision from Magistrate Mark Pizzo was simply a recommendation to a U.S. district court judge, who will issue a final order.

Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde said he was delighted that the judge had ruled in Spain's favor, calling it a "very important decision" that set an "important precedent",

The 17-ton haul of artifacts was discovered in wreckage by Odyssey in March 2007 in international waters about 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar.

The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was a frigate carrying treasure back from Peru when British gunboats off the Spanish coast sank it in 1804, officials from Spain said.

Upon discovering the loot, Odyssey had flown the treasure to Florida from Gibraltar, a British territory, after which Spain laid claim on the findings.

In his report, Pizzo said there was solid evidence of Spain's claim that the wreckage was that of the Mercedes.

He suggested that the debris field's location, coins, cannons and artifacts persuasively match the Mercedes historical record and that the Tampa court did not have jurisdiction in the case and recommended the artifacts be returned to Spain.

Odyssey said it planned to file a written objection to the decision and would "vigorously defend its rights to what it has legally recovered."

Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm said they would be back to argue the merits of the case and that his company had done everything by the book.

"For the court to find that enough evidence exists to conclusively identify the site as the Mercedes ... is just wrong," he stated.

Peru entered the legal fray in August when it filed a claim for information with the Tampa court, which said the coins may be "part of the patrimony of the Republic of Peru."

Peru was ruled by Spain at the time the Mercedes was sunk.


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