How an historic sea booty slipped through Odysseys fingers
A US treasure-hunting company recently failed in its attempt to claim ownership of the 500 million treasure trove it discovered off the Spanish coast.
The dispute over the booty of the Mercedes had drawn in Spain's government, a US court and Washington lawmakers.
With the Mercedes treasure safe in Spain, the five-year legal battle over an estimated 594,000 silver and gold coins recovered from a 19th-century shipwreck finally came to a close earlier this month.
Not only was it a costly public dispute for all parties engaged, but it involved a canny behind-the-scenes ruse blending greed, deceit, political intrigue and even mutiny within Odyssey Marine Exploration, which eventually saw all the half-million historic minted pieces plucked from its hands after losing one court battle after another.
The Tampa-based underwater salvager fought hard to keep the trove, but to no avail. On May 14, the US Supreme Court rejected Odysseys final appeal in the company’s last-ditch hope not only to remain with the coins but also to set a precedent in international finders-keepers litigation.
Odyssey made a global splash in May 2007 when it announced it had recovered what it billed as the biggest shipwreck treasure in modern history – a 17-ton trove of artefacts plucked from the Atlantic, including silver and gold pieces valued at about 500 million.
But while it lodged a tooth-and-nail fight with Spain – which always insisted that the treasure belonged to the government because it came from a navy shipwreck – to keep possession of the discovery, it made generous political contributions to US congressmen with the hope of persuading them to change the law before the courts made their final ruling.
The company even backed a criminal complaint against one of the discoverers of the treasure who tried to make money on the stock market on the back of the find.
Records from the US Federal Elections Commission and the US Security Exchange Commission during this period show that Odyssey was actively engaging in covert strategies to keep others from profiting from its discovery.
But in the end,Odyssey, a publicly traded firm listed on the NASDAQ, lost all the legal arguments. The coins and other artefacts, including cannons, gold boxes, wooden fragments, pottery and jewellery, were put on two Hercules C-130 cargo planes sent by the Spanish military and transported to Torrejn air force base in late February.
The entire booty is being guarded at a secret location by the Civil Guard under orders from the Cultural Ministry, which hopes to put it on display soon.