Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Greg Stemm, CEO and Co-Founder,
Odyssey Marine Exploration

Fate of Sunken Treasure Stirs Controversy

June 05, 2009 07:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
A U.S. diving company has vowed to contest a judge's suggestion that the treasure retrieved from a sunken Spanish ship be returned to Spain.

Decision is Nonbinding

On June 3, 2009, a magistrate judge in Tampa, Fla., stated that the loot found on the Spanish warship Mercedes rightfully belongs to Spain and not Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., the U.S. diving company that found the ship in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2007.

Reuters reported that while the judge's opinion is nonbinding, Odyssey Marine Exploration said it will contest the recommendation, which is part of extensive wrangling between the compoany and the governments of Spain and Peru.

The ship contained silver and gold coins worth about $500 million, according to Reuters.

In January 2008, The Associated Press stated that Spain said it had never “expressly abandoned any of its vessels lost at sea.”

James A. Goold, a lawyer for Spain, said in a Bloomberg article, “The decision recognizes that there is a vital interest for the United States and Spain and other nations to respect the resting place of sailors who died at sea.” Goold continued, “The Mercedes is the Spanish equivalent of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. How can anyone think it would be OK to strip the site of valuables?”

Background: Discovering the shipwreck

Odyssey Marine Exploration announced in May 2007 that it had discovered a shipwreck in the Atlantic. The boat contained some 500,000 silver coins.

The company shipped the artifacts to the United States from the British protectorate of Gibraltar, but according to a Voice of America clip, kept the exact location of the discovery a secret.

Spain filed a formal complaint with a U.S. federal court in Miami to recover the boat and its contents on the premise that warships remain the property of their flag country.

The sunken ship also sparked an insider-trading dispute with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ernesto Tapanes, an oceanographer doing consulting aboard the Odyssey’s exploration vessel, violated an agreement that forbade him from trading the exploration company’s stock. But he still bought up Odyssey stock, dumping it once the shares had doubled in price after the announcement of the discovery.

Related Topic: Future treasure hunts

According to the Telegraph, Spain's minister of culture said the Odyssey ruling is “hugely important” and “one that will set a precedent for future claims.” Odyssey is currently in talks with the British government about recovering the contents of the wrecked HMS Sussex, a warship that may have been hauling 10 tons of gold in 1694 when it sank off the Spanish coastline.

Reference: Shipwrecks and maritime law


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