Expatica news

Odyssey stakes claim to Spanish treasure found in US waters

22 February 2008

MADRID – What could be a new strike of gold for a US treasure-hunting firm may turn into another judicial battle for the Spanish government. Odyssey Marine Exploration announced on Thursday that it was taking over the ownership of an 18th-century sunken vessel, which was discovered several years ago by another salvage firm 12 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

While Odyssey declined to identify publicly the ship’s origin or its contents, papers filed in the US District Court by the salvage company BDJ Discovery Group state that the treasure contained Spanish coins, emeralds, and silver and gold bars. Odyssey, a Tampa, Florida-based firm, told the court in North Carolina that it was assuming the ownership of the salvage site from BDJ Discovery. Odyssey’s latest move is expected to draw a response from Spain which will seek to prevent the firm from gaining the property. Madrid is already engaged in a heated legal battle over the ownership of three shipwrecks Odyssey intends to salvage in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Lawyers for Odyssey have given the ship a codename, the Firefly. However, a preliminary investigation indicates that it could be the Spanish galleon El Salvador, which went down with three other Armada vessels during a hurricane sometime in the mid-1700s.

BDJ Discovery, a North Carolina firm, asked a US federal judge in 2005 to grant it ownership of the shipwreck. It had brought up to two Spanish half Reale coins, six gold bars, two silver bars, three small shards of silver and two emeralds. A hurricane in October 2005 forced BDJ Discovery to abandon the salvage operation.

According to historical documents, the El Salvador’s final resting place is near Topsail Inlet, near Beaufort, N. C. The area was a major seaport during the heyday of England’s notorious pirate Edward Teach, better known as "Blackbeard." His ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground near Beaufort in 1718.

On 5 March, lawyers for Spain and Odyssey will appear before a federal judge in Tampa, Florida, where the government is challenging ownership on three shipwreck sites discovered by Odyssey last year, including an Italian passenger ship which sank off the coast of Sardinia in 1915, and a 17th-century vessel it found some 40 miles off the coast of Land’s End, in England.

Spain insists that treasure or artefacts found on any of its sunken vessels still belong to the Spanish government. Odyssey has refused to disclose publicly what it has found in the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean on the grounds that it is still researching its finds. It also argues that it is entitled to confidentiality to protect its trade secrets.

But Judge Mark Pizarro of Tampa ruled otherwise and ordered Odyssey to give enough details so that Spain can determine whether it should continue with its ownership claims. Odyssey has failed to comply with this order, Spain says.

Last May, the firm announced it had found some 500,000 gold and silver coins in one wreck it codenamed the Black Swan, in the Atlantic. Odyssey officials put a preliminary value of the coins at USD 500 million, but listed in export licenses filed in Gibraltar, from where the coins were flown out, a worth of USD 1.5 million.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / Á. DE CÓZAR / M. DELFÍN 2008]

Subject: Spanish news