Sunken treasure headed back to Spain

TAMPA Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:08pm EST

TAMPA (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday ordered a deep sea salvage company to turn over $500 million worth of Spanish coins it recovered from a shipwreck to the Spanish government within a week.

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo ended a five-year legal battle between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain over the 594,000 gold and silver coins that were recovered from the wreck of the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in 2007 off the coast of Portugal.

The ship was sunk by the British in an 1804 battle and Spain said it retained ownership of the ship and its cargo.

A U.S. judge ruled in Spain's favor last year, and Odyssey Marine's appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month.

The coins have been held in a storage facility at an undisclosed location in Florida. Pizzo said Odyssey Marine must provide an inventory of the coins to Spain by Tuesday and turn over custody of the coins by February 24. Spain will have to pay for the shipping costs.

The company will abide by the ruling, even though it "flies in the face of all legal precedent," Melinda MacConnel, vice president and general counsel of Odyssey Marine, told reporters after the hearing.

MacConnel said the ruling "undermined" the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in naval affairs, and complained that Washington had influenced the case in Spain's favor. "Clearly, the political influences in this case overshadowed the law," she said.

The ruling would also discourage other treasure hunters from reporting their finds, she added. "The items will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay," she said.

That certainly won't happen to this treasure hoard, said Guillermo Corral, the cultural counselor at Spain's Embassy in Washington, noting that the coins and other artifacts were part of Spanish heritage. "This is history," he said.

Spanish Navy Rear Admiral Javier Romero said the ship was a gravesite for the Spanish sailors who lost their lives in the battle.

Mark Gordon, Odyssey Marine's president, said the ruling would not affect current operations and business plans because all expenses of the project had already been passed through the company's prior profit and loss statements.

He said the company was planning for three shipwreck recoveries in 2012. "The future of Odyssey Marine Explorations has never looked brighter," Gordon said in a statement.

(Editing by David Adams and Stacey Joyce)