Deep seas, adventure, mystery, suspense and a battle over who owns a sunken treasure… they are the trappings of an action-adventure blockbuster that could make hundreds of millions. But this is no movie plot. The treasure is real — possibly worth some $500 million — and a battle over its ownership wages on, but now at another level.
500 million Colonial-era gold and silver coins belonged to the sunken Spanish warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and should be returned to Spain, a U.S. judge said this week.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, a deep-sea treasure-hunting firm based in Tampa, Florida, discovered the shipwrecked treasure in international waters about 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar — a site Odyssey code-named "Black Swan." Soon after the March 2007 discovery, Spain laid claim to the 17-ton coin hoard, demanding its return and sparking a near two-year legal battle. A page in that battle has been turned.
U.S. Federal Court Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo on Wednesday said the Court lacked jurisdiction in the case. Additionally, he believes the site of the treasure find was indeed that of the Mercedes, which is subject to sovereign immunity.
"The debris field’s location, coins, cannons and artifacts persuasively match the Mercedes historical record," wrote Pizzo.
Pizzo suggested that all artifacts be turned over to Spain within 10 days.
"I’m very surprised," Greg Stemm, Odyssey’s CEO, said in a statement. "Odyssey has done everything by the book. For the Court to find that enough evidence exists to conclusively identify the site as the Mercedes and that neither Odyssey nor the claimants who owned the property have any legal interest is just wrong.
I’m confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain’s claim, and we’ll be back to argue the merits of the case."
Spain naturally welcomed Pizzo’s decision.
"I am delighted that the judge has ruled that the ship belongs to Spain and the treasure belongs to Spain. It is a very important decision," Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde was quoted on Reuters.
Odyssey on Thursday reaffirmed it would appeal a ruling requiring forfeiture of the coins and that Pizzo’s recommendation is "far from the end of the “Black Swan” case."
Judge Mark A. Pizzo’s written recommendation follows: