Sunken treasure headed back to Spain

Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:08pm EST
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By Robert Green

TAMPA (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday ordered a deep sea salvage company to turn over $500 million worth of Spanish coins it recovered from a shipwreck to the Spanish government within a week.

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo ended a five-year legal battle between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain over the 594,000 gold and silver coins that were recovered from the wreck of the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in 2007 off the coast of Portugal.

The ship was sunk by the British in an 1804 battle and Spain said it retained ownership of the ship and its cargo.

A U.S. judge ruled in Spain's favor last year, and Odyssey Marine's appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month.

The coins have been held in a storage facility at an undisclosed location in Florida. Pizzo said Odyssey Marine must provide an inventory of the coins to Spain by Tuesday and turn over custody of the coins by February 24. Spain will have to pay for the shipping costs.

The company will abide by the ruling, even though it "flies in the face of all legal precedent," Melinda MacConnel, vice president and general counsel of Odyssey Marine, told reporters after the hearing.

MacConnel said the ruling "undermined" the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in naval affairs, and complained that Washington had influenced the case in Spain's favor. "Clearly, the political influences in this case overshadowed the law," she said.

The ruling would also discourage other treasure hunters from reporting their finds, she added. "The items will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay," she said.   Continued...