The Black Swan Project: Controversy strikes after enormous treasure hoard retrieved from Spanish wreck
A fascinating tale beginning in 2007 involving sunken treasure and international litigation shows the lure of long-forgotten gold is still too tempting to ignore, even by a national government. However, in this particular case, the government concerned, that of Spain, appears to have lodged a legitimate complaint against a private treasure-hunting company that had discovered a consignment of gold and silver coins lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
After a legal battle lasting five years, the treasure was returned to Spain aboard two C-130 Hercules aircraft, operated by the Spanish Air Force. The planes were carrying 595,000 18 th century silver coins weighing more than 17 tons and hundreds of gold coins, worked gold artifacts, and various other items. The hoard had been the subject of a bitter legal battle since its discovery in 2007 by the Florida treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration. The collection has been valued at around $500 million (£314 million), making it the richest haul from a shipwreck ever discovered.
Some of the coins from the “Frigate Mercedes”, National Archaeological Museum Madrid. (Jacinta Iluch Valero, Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Odyssey wasted no time in shipping the treasure back to the US after they discovered it. Statements of earnings showed that the company spent $2.6 million to retrieve the cargo, transport it, store it and conserve it. However, the Spanish government immediately filed a claim against the company arguing that the treasure had been carried by the Spanish frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes , a 36-gun ship which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 with the loss of 200 people on board. The frigate had been engaged in a naval battle with four ships from the British Royal Navy.
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The Odyssey Explorer (midground) in Falmouth Docks, UK. The salvage vessel belongs to Odyssey Marine Exploration, and is used in the exploration of underwater wreck sites. ( CC BY 2.0 )
An internationally-agreed maritime law called the doctrine of sovereign immunity stipulates that active-duty naval vessels engaged on non-commercial missions remain the property of the countries that commissioned them. This in turn gave Spain grounds to claim the treasure as the exclusive property of the wreck and its cargo.
Odyssey countered that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the identity of the ship and that it was actually engaged on a commercial mission, on the grounds that the majority of the coins on board were owned by private merchants. However, the US federal judge presiding over the case, Stephen D. Merryday, ruled that the US has no jurisdiction over this matter and that therefore the treasure should be returned to Spain. This judgement finally settled the matter.
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Merryday also ruled that Odyssey had to pay $1 million in compensation for “bad faith and abusive litigation”. Spain wanted considerably more than that, claiming a total of $3.3 million to cover its legal fees.
“Spain persistently attempted to secure through discovery from Odyssey the claimed identity of the vessel and the evidence supporting that identification” said Merryday. “Of course, Odyssey knew at all times that Spain, given the information pertinent to identification, possessed the historical information and the expertise to identify immediately whether the wreck in question was a Spanish vessel. The fact that Odyssey never asked for Spain's assistance in identifying the vessel reveals much about Odyssey's motives and objectives.”
The coins were packed into the same white plastic containers used by Odyssey to bring them to the US in 2007. They were then stowed aboard the aircraft and flown back to Spain, despite an emergency appeal submitted by Peru to the US Supreme Court. The Peruvian government believed that the coins were mined, refined and minted in Peru while the country was under Spanish occupation. However, previous claims of this nature by descendants of Peruvian merchants have all been rejected.
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“Today a journey that began 200 years ago is finally ending” said Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo, Spain’s ambassador to the US, speaking to Discovery News shortly after the verdict in 2012. “We are recovering a historical legacy and a treasure. This is not money. This is historical heritage.”
The Spanish government split the hoard and exhibited it in a number of national museums where presumably it still lies. Odyssey later agreed a deal with the British Maritime Heritage Foundation to retrieve an even richer treasure from the bottom of the English Channel. This was being carried by HMS Victory, a warship that sank in 1744 carrying more than 1,000 men to their doom, along with a hoard of gold coins worth a possible $1 billion.
But that’s another story.
A hoard of silver coins, the latest about 1700. The British Museum. (Hans Hillewaert/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Featured image: The sinking of the Mercedes, thought to be the wreck discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, codenamed "Black Swan" Public Domain