Spanish treasure lands after 200 years

MADRID Sat Feb 25, 2012 3:35pm EST

Gold coins from a treasure trove of gold and silver coins worth $500 million and recovered from a Spanish ship believed to be from the wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a ship sunk by the British Navy in 1804 as it returned from South America, are handled by a Spanish expert at an undisclosed warehouse in Sarasota, Florida in this handout photo released February 23, 2012.  REUTERS/Spanish Embassy/Handout

Gold coins from a treasure trove of gold and silver coins worth $500 million and recovered from a Spanish ship believed to be from the wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a ship sunk by the British Navy in 1804 as it returned from South America, are handled by a Spanish expert at an undisclosed warehouse in Sarasota, Florida in this handout photo released February 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Spanish Embassy/Handout

MADRID (Reuters) - Coins worth nearly half a billion dollars finally arrived in Spain on Saturday after lying in a sunken warship for more than 200 years and following a five-year legal battle between the Spanish government and a salvage company.

The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a 49-gun navy frigate, set sail from the coast of Peru - then a colony of Spain - with coins to help replenish the Spanish treasury's coffers.

In 1804, British warships attacked as the frigate was approaching the Spanish port of Cadiz and the ship went down, with 249 killed, a Spanish government website said.

On Saturday, Spanish military aircraft landed at the Torrejon air force base near Madrid bearing 594,000 gold and silver coins recovered from the wreck by U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007.

Spain had argued in court that it, not the salvage company, was the rightful owner of the cargo and the ship, and a U.S. judge ordered on February 17 that the coins be returned from Florida.

The company said it would abide by the ruling, although a spokeswoman said it "flies in the face of all legal precedent.

"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."

The Spanish government plans to restore, conserve and catalogue the contents of the 17-tonne cargo, which it estimates to be worth 373 million euros ($496 million).

Several cities are vying to put the coins on show, but the culture minister said no decision had yet been taken. Spain has not said where it will keep the coins in the meantime, for security reasons.

While the treasure is now in Spain, there is still legal action pending.

Spanish news agency EFE reported the Peruvian government planned to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to claim part of the cargo.

And Malaga-based marine archaeology company Nerea, which Lancho also works with, has been asking a Spanish court to bring charges against Odyssey of damage to cultural heritage, damage 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.

(Additional reporting by Teresa Larraz; Editing by Alison Williams)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (13)
Reuters1945 wrote:
I continue to be haunted by the monstrous injustice, both legal and moral, that was done to the U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration organization by the American Courts.

The decision/s handed down by American Courts that allowed the government of Spain to literally wrest, from U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, with zero compensation, not even one penny, the fruits of all its endless labors, hard won expertise and human sacrifices invested in time and energy to locate the remains of a long lost ship, constitutes a legal abomination whose memory will live in infamy.

Clearly this legal case might well cause a person to hold the opinion that the degree of corruption that is rampant in the American Justice system runs as deep, if not more so, than the limitless deep sea depths the dedicated and courageous teams of divers had to explore for years to finally locate and bring to the surface, the remains and cargo of an ancient Spanish ship lost to history for 200 years.

I salute the scientific brilliance and heroism of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in rescuing the world’s past from the potential oblivion of the world’s oceans.

It boggles the mind and beggars the imagination that the US Courts would take the side of Spain in this dispute, whose government would never have found this long lost ship on its own in a thousand years.

Yet the US Courts, fully aware of this fact, ordered U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, having spent millions of dollars to locate and bring the long lost cargo of the ship to the surface, ordered that company to surrender everything they had discovered to people who had nothing to do with the discovery without even compensating the finders for their out of pocket expenses.

The world has always been full to overflowing with sorry specimens of humanity who would take from others that which they would not attempt to earn for themselves.

There is a certain heartbreaking irony in this story. First Spain invaded, conquered, colonized and exploited the indigenous peoples of the “New World”, ruthlessly raping and pillaging their natural resources, gold and silver in particular. Then when the spoils of their limitless and bloodthirsty greed went down to the bottom on the high seas, Spain bided its time for two centuries waiting until their ill gotten gains were at last discovered and then had the audacity to demand the modern day finders surrender all the long lost booty to Spain without so much as contemplating arriving at some form of settlement to share the proceeds of what U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration had with great effort, discovered.

Does something smell rotten in this tawdry tale of wanton and depraved greed ? If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. – anyone with a brain can figure out this story.

The glorious achievement by U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in locating and retrieving from the ocean’s depths the remains of the long lost ship, the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes” will live on long after the international parasites (who would take from the discoverers what they had rescued by dint of blood, sweat and endless toil, from the deep dark seas), and all the despicable and corrupt politicians and various representatives and members of the so-called “justice system” have all long been consigned to the scrap heap of history.
David Pakter, M.A., M.F.A.
www DOT OldMasterPortraits DOT com

Feb 25, 2012 6:26pm EST  --  Report as abuse
SekureAtty wrote:
It would seem, by following a simple path of logic, that if this was a WAR SHIP taking gold from another country and then being subsequently sunk in a foreign territory that the gold would actually be returned to the home country. Although I am wondering why the salvage company was not allowed to keep it considering pretty much every salvage company gets to keep their find.

Feb 25, 2012 8:47pm EST  --  Report as abuse
infoyahoo wrote:
Although not having a detailed knowledge of the laws of the sea and marine salvage, it does appear to be a travesty of justice. It is not a question of taking sides Spain v USA, that would be parochial and fascist. It simply seems totally unfair. Perhaps the saying “the law is an ass” has some relevance. One certainly feels sympathy for Odyssey Marine, however sympathy doesn’t pay the bills. There appears to be a stark distinction between an abandoned ship and a sunken ship. Can anyone elucidate?

Feb 26, 2012 2:10am EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.