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Odyssey argues to keep contested sunken treasure

Published on 25/05/2011

US deep-sea explorer firm Odyssey told a US court Tuesday it refuses to recognize Spain as owner of a massive treasure haul recovered from a shipwreck in the Atlantic, a company source said.

Lawyers for the firm based in Tampa, Florida argued before an appeals court in the neighboring state of Georgia for a reversal of a 2009 decision by a trial judge that recognized Spain as rightful owner of the galleon treasure, which includes more than half a million coins and pieces of gold and silver.

“The district court erred in awarding Spain the coins. Without jurisdiction over the property, the court has no authority to dispose of the coins other than to return them to the party in possession at the time the matter came before the court,” the lawyers said in their presentation.

Odyssey is embroiled in a prolonged legal battle with Spain, as well as with descendants of the ship’s owners and Peru, which claims the pricey gold and silver originated in the country.

In May 2007, Odyssey announced it found an underwater motherlode of coins and other precious objects in a sunken 19th century galleon they code-named the “Black Swan.”

Odyssey said the 17-ton treasure was found in “international waters in the Atlantic Ocean,” but never gave an exact location citing security concerns.

Spain’s suspicions were raised when the company discreetly shipped its massive find to the United States via the British-owned port of Gibraltar.

“Spain is not the defendant in this case nor is any vessel,” the lawyers said in their presentation, according to the company source.

“The defendant is property recovered from international waters, namely the 590,000 coins.”

Spain has identified the ship as the Our Lady of Mercedes. When the Mercedes sank in 1804 it led Spain to declare war on Britain and re-enter the Napoleonic Wars.

Madrid contested the company’s claim to the wreck in a US court in Florida, arguing that if it was a Spanish military vessel — instead of a private commercial ship — or if it was located in Spanish waters, any treasure would belong to Spain.

In December 2009 the Florida court ruled that Odyssey return the treasure to Spain. That ruling is now under appeal, with Odyssey arguing that Spain’s claim is baseless in part because the Mercedes was a commercial vessel.

The company insists that its shipwreck salvagers acted lawfully and appropriately in the recovery of artifacts.

A decision on the matter could take “some weeks or months,” according to Odyssey.