Odyssey Marine Must Give Spain Shipwreck Treasure, Judge Says

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. was directed to start turning over to Spain a 17 ton-haul (15,400 kilograms) of treasure and artifacts from a Spanish warship it discovered five years ago in the Atlantic Ocean.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo in Tampa, Florida, yesterday ordered Odyssey to return the treasure from Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes to Spanish custody on Feb. 24. A federal appeals court last year affirmed the dismissal of Odyssey’s claims for ownership of the wreck’s cargo.

Spain claimed the Mercedes was a Spanish Royal Navy Frigate that exploded and sank in combat in 1804, according to the Sept. 21 ruling by the U.S. appeals court in Atlanta. As Spanish sovereign property, the ship is immune to claims made in the U.S., Spain argued.

Melinda MacConnel, general counsel for Tampa-based Odyssey, didn’t immediately return a phone call to her office after regular business hours yesterday seeking comment on today’s order.

The Mercedes, loaded with 900,000 silver pesos, 5,809 golden pesos and about 2,000 copper and tin ingots, was part of a convoy taking treasure to Spain from Peru, then still a Spanish viceroyalty, when it was intercepted by a British squadron one day from arriving at the Spanish port of Cadiz.

Secret Agreement

Spain needed the treasure to pay France under a secret agreement and Great Britain, which was at conflict with France, had informed Spain that it considered the financial support of France as grounds for attacking Spain, according to the appellate court ruling.

When the Spanish convoy refused to surrender, a sea battle ensued and the Mercedes exploded after only a few minutes. Odyssey, which searches for sunken treasure, discovered the remains of the ship on the bottom of the Atlantic about 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar and recovered about 595,000 coins.

In December 2009, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday in Tampa backed Spain’s position that the court had no jurisdiction over it under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and dismissed the case that Odyssey Marine had brought. Merryday had said Odyssey could hold the property while it pursued its appeal.

Odyssey had argued the ship isn’t entitled to sovereign immunity because it was “primarily on a commercial voyage when it sank, and therefore should not be considered as a ‘warship.’” More than 70 percent of the coins never belonged to Spain, the company has said.

The case is Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, 07-cv-614, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida (Tampa).

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