A U.S. District Judge filed an order on Tuesday, Dec. 22, backing a magistrate court’s decision that a salvage reportedly worth around $500 million should be returned to Spain.
The Magistrate’s decision occurred back in June and recommended the return of over 500,000 silver and gold Colonial era coins to Spain. That decision was brought as a result of Spain’s suit seeking the treasure believing it to be recovered from the Spanish warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, the firm which recovered the coins from the ocean floor nearly 100 miles west of the Strait of Gibraltar in international waters, disputes Spain’s claim, going so far as to recognize the possibility that it did not come from the Mercedes. They have code-named the project "Black Swan" and have been holding the 17-ton recovery pending the outcome of the litigation.
According to Spain, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was sunk by British gunboats in 1804 as it was returning from Peru loaded with treasure. Affirming his belief that the sunken treasure came from the Mercedes was this comment from the District Court Judge:
"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," stated Judge Steven Merryday in his order.
Merryday’s order acknowledged the high likelihood of an appeal by Odyssey by directing the return of the treasure be stayed until the case was concluded.
Odyssey for its part released a statement regarding the decision which said in part:
"Judge Merryday’s ruling serves to move this case to the appellate court faster, where we feel confident that the legal issues are clearly in our favor.
We will file our notice of appeal with the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Florida and Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals within the required time and look forward to presenting our case in that forum," commented Odyssey Marine Exploration.
The release also solidifies Odyssey’s position that even if the recovered coins are from the Mercedes, the company does not feel that sovereign immunity would apply stating the Mercedes was not on a military mission at the time. According to Odyssey, it is well-documented that 70% of the Mercedes cargo did not belong to Spain but was instead commercial cargo for which freight had been paid for by private individuals.
Odyssey Marine Exploration specializes in the recovery of deep-sea wrecks and has successfully recovered artifacts from several sites including the Civil War-era shipwreck of the SS Republic. According to the company, the most recent ruling will have no effect on current operations stating that it has not planned on any revenue from the "Black Swan" find until the case has been resolved.