Spain Claims Sunken Treasure

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Jonathan Blair / AFP / Getty

Seventeen tons of silver coins from a sunken Spanish galleon and worth hundreds of millions of dollars are unloaded by Odyssey Marine Exploration.

The deep surrendered one of its mysteries today. Ever since May 2007, when the American shipwreck salvage company Odyssey Marine gave its latest and most spectacular discovery the appropriately pirate-esque code name of "The Black Swan," controversy about the ship's true identity has spawned speculation and even litigation about who owned the lucrative shipwreck. Today, the Spanish government submitted evidence a Florida court that the ship was actually Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish navy frigate that sank in the early 19th century. In other words, that it was theirs.

"The mystery is over," said James Goold, the lawyer representing the Spanish government, at a Madrid press conference on Thursday. "Odyssey stripped the gravesite of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes." Although Odyssey representatives said they had sought to keep the shipwreck's exact location secret out of concern for the site's security, in January, the court ordered the American company to reveal its findings to Spain. That information, coupled with the government's own investigations, enabled Madrid to assert today that the sunken ship — and the trove of silver treasure it contained — rightfully belong to the Spanish state.

The ownership dispute first erupted in April 2007, when the for-profit company Odyssey filed claim to and extracted some 17 tons of silver coins and other treasure from the underwater site, moving the artifacts to an undisclosed storage facility near its company headquarters in Tampa. From the outset, Spain believed that the ship was Spanish, and that the excavation therefore amounted to an attack on its historical patrimony. Odyssey, on the other hand, argued that as salvager it had the right to a significant percentage of the reclaimed booty regardless of the ship's origins. And as recently as January 2008, Odyssey CEO Greg Stemm said that the company's own experts were still uncertain of the ship's identity.

But according to the Spanish, both the wreck's location and the booty recovered from it clearly point to the Mercedes. "We have been able to pinpoint Odyssey's operations in international waters, and confirm that they were working where the Battle of Cape Saint Mary occurred," says Goold, referring to the 1804 battle in which a British warship fired upon the Mercedes and blew it up. "The artifacts that remain are spilled in a way consistent with an explosion. There's only one ship that fits that description." Stemm contests Goold's conclusion. "He is either trying to twist the historical records," the Odyssey CEO says, "or he has not reviewed them."

At the press conference, Carmen Marcos, chief coin curator for Spain's National Archaeology Museum, said that limited, preliminary evidence suggested that the pieces of eight recovered from the ship were minted in 1803 in the then-Spanish colony of Peru. "The coins show us that the ship had recently left the port of El Callao in Lima. Of that, there is no doubt," she said. Historical documents that Spain presented today show that the Mercedes left El Callao in April 1804.

They also show that approximately 200 sailors and members of their families were killed in the explosion. "We can consider the site an underwater cemetery," said José Jiménez, director of fine arts for the culture ministry. "It contains the human remains of our sailors." Those remains now look to play a significant role in Spain's legal strategy, as the case drags on in the Tampa court. One of Odyssey's arguments is that Spain had abandoned the shipwreck site — a justification that another salvager, Mel Fisher, used successfully to lay claim to a pair of Spanish ships sunk off the coast of Florida. But by contending that the shipwreck constitutes a "cemetery", Spain can say that it hasn't disturbed the site out of respect for its own dead.

The depiction also makes for good p.r. "People have this idea of treasure hunters as glamorous," says Goold. "But if it involves going down to a gravesite and taking someone's wedding ring, it's a different kind of thing."