Spain Files Suit To Claim Sunken Treasure

The ship Odyssey Explorer, owned by Odyssey Marine Exploration, sits docked in Gibraltar, southern Spain, Thursday Jan. 26, 2006. The Spanish government on Thursday told the U.S. underwater exploration company Odyssey, operating off southern Spain, to stop looking for the HMS Sussex, a shipwreck believed to hold one of history's richest sunken treasures, until it can prove it is seeking the right ship. AP Photo/EFE, A. Carrasco Ragel

Spain laid formal claim Thursday to a shipwreck that yielded an estimated $500 million in treasure, saying it has proof the vessel is Spanish and demanding that a Florida deep-sea exploration firm that recovered the booty give it all back.

Culture Ministry officials and James Goold, a Washington-based lawyer who represents the Spanish government, said the 19th-century shipwreck at the heart of a year-old dispute with Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa is without a doubt the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. The Spanish warship was sunk by the British navy southwest of Portugal in 1804 with more than 200 people on board.

"We are talking about the remains of a Spanish navy vessel, and the human remains of Spanish naval servicemen who died on board which have been illegally disturbed," said ministry director general Jose Jimenez.

"It is the property of the Spanish navy, government and people, and we want it all back," said Teodoro de Leste Contreras, a navy admiral who runs a naval museum owned by the Culture Ministry.

The Spanish government filed evidence Thursday backing up its claim with a U.S. federal judge hearing the case in Tampa.

Goold said U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo will now convene the two parties to review the case before deciding who gets to keep the treasure, now held in a warehouse somewhere in Tampa.

Goold said he expected Odyssey would keep "not a penny" of the salvage. Odyssey officials have said they believe the court will award them the majority of the treasure, as it was found by Odyssey.

Odyssey officials maintain there isn't enough evidence to prove the vessel is the Mercedes, mainly because there is no hull. They said they have found only cargo from a shipwreck, not the actual vessel, according to a statement the company released Thursday.

Odyssey officials said they are surprised the Spanish government has conclusively said "the "Black Swan" treasure is from the Mercedes after viewing site photomosaics and video that show no hull, ballast pile, keel or vessel, and only a statistically insignificant sample of the coins from the site," the statement said.

Spain argues the entire treasure should be returned to it because naval vessels never cease to be the property of the nation that flagged them, regardless of where they lay, under the principle of sovereign immunity, Goold said.

"Spain has not abandoned or otherwise relinquished in any way its ownership of Mercedes," Spain argued in Thursday's court filing.

If the coins are found to be from the Mercedes, Odyssey officials said "it is up to the U.S. District Court to determine the final disposition of the "Black Swan" treasure," according to the statement.

Odyssey announced in May 2007 it had discovered the wreck in the Atlantic and raised 500,000 silver coins and other artifacts worth an estimated $500 million. It said at the time it did not know what ship it was. Odyssey flew the booty back to Tampa without Spain's knowledge from an airport on the British colony of Gibraltar on Spain's southwestern tip.

Spain went to the U.S. federal court claiming ownership of the treasure if it turned out to be connected to the country's national heritage.

Goold said Spain's evidence - based on material provided by Odyssey under court order - proved the ship and cargo were definitely Spanish property.

Naval and coin experts said they had absolute proof Odyssey's salvage proceeded from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which exploded and sank in a naval battle as it sailed back to Spain from South America.

The coins aboard the ship included gold doubloons or "pieces of eight" minted in 1803 in Lima, Peru, bearing the image of Spain's King Carlos IV, said ministry coin expert Carmen Marcos.

In its filing with the U.S. court, Spain said: "Analysis of location information from multiple sources confirms the location on the seabed from which Odyssey took coins and other artifacts is the site of Mercedes."

Artifacts on the seabed, and their distribution and other characteristics, as well as artifacts taken by Odyssey "further identify the site as the remains of Mercedes," the Spanish filing says.

Odyssey had sought to kept private its information on the ship, including its identity. Pizzo last month forced the company to turn over its information and Odyssey said the ship was probably the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
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