Appeal over sunken treasure remains unresolved

The Mercedes under fire (artists impression)

By Jan Gamm - Round Town News

Deep-sea explorers Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Florida, appealed on Tuesday to have a previous Tampa court decision overturned: that a 17-ton treasure estimated to be worth $500 million recovered from the wrecked Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes off the coast of Portugal belongs to Spain. 

The Mercedes was sunk by the British Navy in 1804. Although Spain was neutral in the war between Britain and France it had shown signs of declaring an alliance with France.

In a confrontation off the Portugese coast, the commander of the Mercedes, Rear-Admiral Don José Bustamente, was requested by British Vice-Admiral Sir Graham Moore (a close friend of Admiral Lord Nelson) to change course and set sail for England. Bustamente refused and instead fired on the British gunships. A brief skirmish resulted in the sinking of the Mercedes and the surrender of the rest of the fleet.

In May 2007, Odyssey started an international row with Spain when it announced that it had raised more than 500,000 silver coins and other artifacts from the wreck and cheekily flown the treasure back to Tampa.

Spain promptly registered ownership with the US District Court in Tampa and Odyssey countered with its own dispute of the valuable cargo, claiming it was recovered from a commercial vessel (treasure recovered from a vessel involved in commerce is ‘finders keepers’, whereas cargo recovered from a warship is not). 

The case rests on whether the ship was classed as a merchant vessel. Odyssey’s lawyers claim the ship’s gun deck was crammed with merchandise rendering it unable to fight. Spain insists the wreck was a “sacred grave” and the US should hand the case over to be resolved in the Spanish courts.

The results of the case could alter the outcome of many more legal battles over treasure hunts and the American Justice Department is now also applying pressure to have the case transferred to the Spanish courts to protect jurisdiction over the legal status of future discoveries: the US has around 3,000 sunken warships and planes on the ocean floor. 

The outcome of this case is expected to set a benchmark for the legal framework of global treasure hunting.

odyssey marine exploration FLORIDA American courts Civil Guard Spain Mercedes