Sunken Treasure Case Headed to Federal Appeals Court

| January 7, 2010 | 0 Comments
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By RICHARD MULLINS | The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – A higher federal court will now hear the legal dispute over just who owns the richest sunken treasure ever found, either Tampa’s Odyssey Marine, which found the treasure, or Spain, which claims it as a historic artifact.

In summer 2007, Odyssey located more than half a billion dollars in gold and silver coins on the floor of the Atlantic in a wreck ultimately identified, most likely, as the Mercedes warship, carrying freight from South America to Spain in the 18th century.

The coins now sit in a vault in an undisclosed location somewhere in Florida — outside Tampa, Odyssey officials say. Spanish officials have protested, claiming the treasure is Spanish government property, and must be returned.

Odyssey Marine

The case involves complex admiralty and international salvage law, partly over whether the vessel was a warship carrying noncommercial property at the time it sank. Tuesday, a federal judge in Tampa effectively kicked the issue to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Judge Steven Merryday wrote that the case “combines a compelling episode in naval history … the intriguing prospect of recovering great wealth lost in connection with international conflict, the objective of respectful and reliable preservation of warships and their occupants and cargo lost at sea, and the troubling question of the plight of both persons and natural resources subject to colonial exploitation.”

He judged that the “ineffable truth of this case is that the Mercedes is a naval vessel of Spain and that the wreck of this naval vessel, the vessel’s cargo, and any human remains are the natural and legal patrimony of Spain.”

Reasoning, though, that adding his opinion wouldn’t resolve the issue, Merryday sent the case to the appeals court.

Odyssey officials say they expected as much.

“It was clear that this case would go to appeal no matter which way the judge ruled,” said Greg Stemm, Odyssey’s CEO, noting that the case does not affect current Odyssey operations and that the company has not been counting on revenue from the so-called “Black Swan” treasure.

Other Odyssey officials have said they wouldn’t be surprised if the case ultimately moves to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Odyssey has been working on more straightforward ocean engineering projects and negotiating deals in advance with foreign governments, such as the United Kingdom, about how to handle any treasure found.

Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919.

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Category: Legislative Actions, Treasures Headlines

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