Fight over Spanish treasure may have far-reaching implications

Fight over Spanish treasure may have far-reaching implications

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For more than 200 years, thousands of silver coins sat undisturbed on the ocean floor.

The treasure was being shipped by the Spanish government by the naval vessel Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.

The ship was lost in combat in 1804.

Then in march of 2007, using sophisticated sonar and magnetometer equipment Odyssey Marine discovered the huge fortune.

Odyssey kept the project a secret, recovering the coins and flying them back to Tampa International Airport under the cover of darkness.

The coins were then stored in a Tampa Bay Area warehouse, but soon became the focus of an intense legal battle.

Odyssey sited maritime law the keep the estimated half a billion dollars in silver.

The government of Spain maintained the treasure should be returned to them.

After six years of legal fighting, Spain won.

The Spanish government sent a delegation to Tampa and the coins were turned over to the delegation on the tarmac at Macdill Air Force base.

Washington D.C. based attorney Jim Goold successfully argued the case in federal court on behalf of the Spanish government.

Goold says, " I can't believe it even now that it took six years to put an end to this thing."

In a recent ruling Federal Judge Steven Merryday ruled that Odyssey had known that the treasure was from the Mercedes and that the company purposefully withheld the information, even when ordered to turn over relevant facts by a federal magistrate.

Merryday ruled, "As Odyssey knew at all pertinent times, Mercedes was a Spanish warship with a naval crew. When destroyed in 1804 at the start of a naval battle with hostile British vessels, Mercedes carried a huge cargo of silver specie from Peru toward Spain to assist Spain's war effort; she did so under orders from the King of Spain."

As a warship Spain has additional rights under maritime law.

Odyssey maintained the ship also hauled cargo, mail and passengers.

However Judge Merryday found, "Mercedes carried the civilian family of an officer serving on Mercedes and carried some mail and carried some miscellaneous civilian cargo, as was the practice in the day."

He went on to harshly criticize Odyssey saying, "Odyssey frivolously and in bad faith denied the existence and the identity of the vessel and, in furtherance of the bad faith denial, purposefully withheld evidence establishing beyond reasoned doubt the existence and identity of the vessel."

Merryday not only ordered the return of the coins, he fined Odyssey.

In an article for the Miami Law review Dave Werner wrote had a different opinion of the case.

Werner wrote, " The ruling focuses on sovereign immunity and ignores applicable maritime law. The ruling negatively impacts the future of the deep sea salvage industry."

Since the return of the treasure, Odyssey has successfully worked out a legal agreement with the British government.

In the summer of 2013, Odyssey recovered millions of dollars in silver from the wreck of the S.S. Garisoppa, a freighter sunk by a German U-Boat during World War II.

Attorney Jim Goold doesn't see an agreement like that in the future between Odyssey and Spain.

Goold says,"You're talking about a company that we have just finished going through six years of litigation that a, I use the district court words, were consistent of bad faith, purposeful withholding of evidence by Odyssey, dismissive conduct of Spain, contemptuous conduct, I don't think that creates much of background for a prospective partner."

Odyssey says they've moved on since returning the treasure.

Odyssey CEO. Greg Stemm says, "Considering the economic position that Spain and many other governments are in, our model of providing the best archaeological resources in the world while giving money to governments without any expense to taxpayers is finding a great deal of interest from an increasing number of countries."

Related Content: Odyssey Marine


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