* Tampa judge says company must return coins next week
* Cargo valued at $500 million
* Salvage company says it will abide by ruling
By Robert Green
TAMPA, Feb 17 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
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 Feb. 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
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.