Federal Court Orders Treasure Hunters Return Coin Trove to Spain

Posted on February 20, 2012


On Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo gave Odyssey Marine Exploration, a deep sea treasure recovery company, just one week to return 17 tons of treasure from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes shipwreck to Spain. The coins and artifacts have been at an undisclosed storage facility in Florida since 2007, and Odyssey has been fighting to retain the objects.

In 2007, Odyssey discovered and recovered the 17 tons of treasure from the Atlantic Ocean approximately 100 miles west of Gibraltar. Odyssey quietly brought the 600,000 Spanish coins to the United States. Estimating the value of the treasure to be $500 million, Odyssey filed a claim in the US District Court in the Middle District of Florida to obtain title to the coins. The site of the discovery was initially code-named “Black Swan.”

Spain showed an interest in the discovery, claiming it was the shipwreck site of The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk in October of 1804 by a British fleet. The 34-gun frigate was sailing from Peru and was within a day’s sail from Spain. According to the Spanish government’s filing in district court, the ship exploded after being hit on its power magazine. Spain contested Odyssey’s claim, arguing that the ship and its contents had not been abandoned and still belonged to Spain. Peru then entered the litigation, contesting ownership of the coins because they were minted in Lima and had never touched Spanish soil.

In 2009, the federal court in Tampa ordered the treasure be turned over to Spain. Odyssey appealed the ruling and took the case to the appeals court in Atlanta. In September 2011, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The Washington Post reports:

Melinda MacConnel, vice president and general counsel for Odyssey, said Spanish officials will be given access to the treasure and the company won’t contest the ruling. She said the company followed federal maritime law and did nothing wrong in salvaging the wreck and bringing it back to the United States without the cooperation or permission of Spain. She blamed politics for the courts’ decisions since the U.S. government publicly backed Spain’s efforts to get the treasure returned, and she lamented that the company was unable to bring the case to trial.

MacConnel’s assessment is consistent with my own analysis of the applicable law, as indicated in my article, High Seas Shipwreck Pits Treasure Hunters Against a Sovereign Nation: The Black Swan Case.

Odyssey says it will turn the treasure over to Spain and not to further contest the rulings.

Read the Washington Post article: Judge rules Spain can take control of shipwreck treasure recovered by Fla. company next week.

Read other articles on Cultural Property & Archaeology Law on this topic.

Thanks to Kristina Bauer for her assistance with this post.