Deep-sea explorers fight Spain over shipwreck treasure

From the Washington Post


Florida deep-sea explorers asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to overturn an earlier ruling that 17 tons of treasure recovered from a sunken Spanish galleon belongs to Spain, deepening a long-running battle over a trove worth an estimated $500 million that has unfolded not on the high seas but in federal courtrooms.

Attorneys for Odyssey Marine Exploration asked the three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the “finders keepers” rule that would give the treasure hunters the rights to silver coins, copper ingots, gold cufflinks and other artifacts salvaged about four years ago from the galleon off the coast of Portugal.

Spain’s lawyers countered that U.S. courts are obligated by international treaty and maritime law to uphold Spain’s claim to the haul.

The ship, called the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, was sunk by British warships in the Atlantic in 1804 while sailing back from South America with more than 200 people on board. Odyssey created an international splash in May 2007 when it announced that it raised more than 500,000 silver coins and other artifacts from the wreck and flew the treasure back to Tampa.

Spain went to the U.S. District Court in Tampa, where the company is based, claiming ownership while Odyssey disputed the Spanish government’s ownership of the valuable cargo.

A federal judge sided with Spain in the first round of the tug-of-war in June 2009, accepting the Spanish government’s argument that it never surrendered ownership of the ship and its contents. But the two sides — along with a horde of other lawyers representing outside parties — were back in court Tuesday to argue a case that could spill over to treasure hunts for years to come.

Much of Tuesday’s arguments centered on whether the Mercedes was classified as a warship or merchant ship. That’s an important distinction because Odyssey’s attorneys argued that if the vessel was destroyed during commercial activity, Spain would have no firm claim to the property.

International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

“There is no vessel. There is no ship. There is no graveyard,” said Odyssey attorney Melinda MacConnel, who added that the company never raised any remnants of the actual ship.

“The commercial activity of this ship could not be more clear.”


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