Battle for sunken treasure

Spain has said that the coins are classified as national heritage and must stay inside the country, where they will be exhibited in one or more museums

By Roland Lloyd Parry - The Times of Malta

Ship that sank in 1804 yields a booty that has the US, Spain, and Latin America at odds.

A court battle over treasure from an old Spanish shipwreck has reached Gibraltar, where descendants of the sunken cargo’s owners are fighting to win back part of the booty from Spain.

The British-administered territory has been drawn into a tangled squabble between Spain, US treasure hunters and the Latin American descendants, in a case harking back to the days of the Spanish empire.

Mathilde Daireaux Kinsky, an Argentinian who lives in Colombia, says part of the cargo of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk by the British in a sea battle in 1804, belonged to her ancestor Diego de Alvear y Ponce de Leon.

A Spanish general in the colonies at the time, he was not on board himself but lost his wife and seven of his children along with his precious coins in the shipwreck.

“We are not doing this for the money. We are seeking respect for the memory of our family members who died on board the Mercedes,” said Ms Daireaux, 49, one of six descendants claiming the treasure in the Gibraltar courts.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company that specialises in salvaging deep-sea wrecks, hauled the treasure – mainly gold and silver coins mined and minted in the former Spanish colonies – from the seabed off Portugal in 2007.

It transported most of the treasure via Gibraltar, a sunny enclave of British pubs and red telephone boxes at the mouth of the Mediterranean, to Florida, where the company is based.

A court in Florida last month let the Spanish government claim this share – 23 tons of silver coins and other items, worth €350 million – and fly it back to Madrid.

But several hundred more silver coins were left behind in a crate in a Gibraltar customs house, where they were blocked pending Spanish legal efforts to claim them, says Daniel Feetham, a lawyer acting for the descendants.

“The descendants have issued a claim in the Supreme Court of Gibraltar and there is an order from the court here preventing these coins from being taken out of the jurisdiction,” said Dr Feetham.

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