Trial in the US to retrieve Spanish treasure

Treasure hunters Odyssey losses first round to Spanish government in court battle in US

On 3rd June this year a judge in a US court in Tampa, Florida ruled in favour of Spain in the case of La Mercedes, a Spanish ship which sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean over 200 years ago. The claims by Odyssey Marine Exploration, the company which discovered the wreck, that the remains of the ship and its contents are the property of the company therefore look unlikely to succeed after a two year legal battle with the Spanish government.

The ruling in the court in Florida this month backs the claims by the Spanish government that the remains of the Mercedes is part of Spanish heritage. The controversy surrounding the archaeological remains of the Mercedes arose as soon as Odyssey Marine Exploration publicly announced their discovery which included treasure of 500,000 gold and silver coins. The remains of the ship were discovered in May 2007 although the exact location was kept a secret.

However, even then the Spanish authorities suspected that the ship in question was la Mercedes, a Spanish war ship which exploded after being hit by a cannon fired from a British vessel on 5th October 1804 during the battle for Santa María, near the Algarve coastline. Since the announcement of the discovery both the Odyssey and the Spanish government have been locked in a legal battle in a court in Florida over who has the rights to the treasure found on the ship.

The result of the ruling on 3rd June undermines the interests of Odyssey whose shares slumped 41% on the Nasdaq index yesterday. However, for now the ruling by the court in Tampa is only a recommendation to a superior judge who can decide if it stays that way or not. The decision establishes the fact that the courts have no jurisdiction over a Spanish war ship which has sovereign immunity over any claims presented in the US.

If the superior judge upholds the preliminary ruling then the Odyssey has just 10 days to appeal against the decision. The lawsuit could continue for at least another two years and even if the courts rule in favour of Spain the company could still take its case to the high court. Meanwhile the treasure remains in the custody of the authorities in Tampa.

Odyssey bases it claims of ownership over the wreck of La Mercedes because it says that the ship was on a commercial voyage when it was sunk. It is trying to gain the support of the descendents of the crew of the ship who for the most part were traders who had deposited their fortune in the ship when it set sail from Lima, Peru. The Vice -Chairman and lawyer for Odyssey, Melinda MacConnel, says that she believes that these people will support the claims by the company.

Grem Stem, the Director of Odyssey, said that he was very surprised over the ruling and was confident that the superior judges would see the weakness in the Spanish case.

However, what remains clear is that for now Spanish claims over ownership of La Mercedes have been reinforced. The Minister for Culture, Ángeles González- Sinde, has been cited as saying that the decision is a precedent for future discoveries and that the government has been waiting two years for this ruling and is hopeful that the case will be concluded soon.

Taken from an El País article.