Monday, February 27, 2012

Seventeen Tons of Gold and Silver Coins Recovered from Sunken Galleon

Two military planes laden with 17 tons of silver and gold coins scooped up from a Spanish warship that sank during a 1804 gunbattle landed in Spain today, ending a 200-year odyssey that took the treasure from an ocean floor to Florida courtrooms.
The planes landed with the 594,000 coins and other artifacts retrieved after a five-year legal wrangle with the Florida-based salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration, which had taken the haul to the U.S. in May 2007.

Once the treasure is offloaded from the planes it will be transported to an undisclosed location, state broadcaster RTVE said.

The deep-sea explorers found the treasure in a shipwreck, believed to be Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal's Atlantic coast.

British warships had sunk it as it approached Spain as part of a fleet that had traveled from South America. The Mercedes was believed to have had 200 people aboard when it exploded and sank.

Odyssey made international headlines when it discovered the wreck, estimating the trove to be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, making the haul one of the richest ever.

The Tampa-based salvage outfit had used a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths and bring items including cannon balls and other metal fragments to a surface ship, and argued that it was entitled to the treasure.

The Spanish government challenged Odyssey's ownership in U.S. District Court soon after the coins were flown back to Tampa, relying on documents from its naval archive which listed Mercedes as a naval warship.

International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers and the Spanish government successfully argued that it had never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents.
A federal district court first ruled in 2009 that U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction, and ordered the treasure returned.

Odyssey then lost every round in federal courts trying to hold on to the treasure, as the Spanish government painted them as modern-day pirates plundering the nation's cultural heritage.

On Thursday the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give that nation more time to make arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner.

Peru says the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. The appeal was directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not indicate when he would respond.

U.S. courts had previously rejected claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the coins aboard the Mercedes.

'Peru is making the same arguments that have been rejected at every level of the U.S. courts,' said James Goold, a Washington attorney who represents the Spanish government. 'There's absolutely nothing new in it.'

The head spokesman for Peru's embassy in Washington, Rodolfo Pereira, declined to comment yesterday on the appeal.

Spanish officials said last week the planes would leave by Friday, and MacDill authorities planned a news conference on the base Friday morning with the ambassador and other officials.

The planes were expected to be already loaded with pallets holding the white plastic buckets filled with coins.

Odyssey - which uses a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths and bring the tiniest of items to the surface - had previously argued that as the finder it was entitled to all or most of the treasure.

The Spanish government filed a claim in a U.S. District Court soon after the coins were flown back to Tampa, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents.

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