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:  The sinking of the Mercedes, thought to be the wreck discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, codenamed "Black Swan"

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

“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.

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

By Robin Whitlock



How about kicking out all the Anglo-Saxons from England since they stole England from the Celts? Maybe the Vandals and Visigoths should be kicked out of Italy too. Or, how about living in the present and stop whining about the wrongs of hundreds of years ago. The treasure was Spain's after they took it from the Incas. The Incas took it from the Chimu. It continues going back for a thousand years as one people conquered another. How do we find the original owners of the gold? Maybe we should just turn all of it into gold dust and spread it all over Peru so that it goes back to the Earth like it was before humans got involved.

Justice is served according to the law today. The Peruvian indigents are not a legal entity and therefore not entitled to anything in a court of law today. Their issue is reparations anyway, and not treasure recovery. In a perfect world the slaves would never been enslaved and the mining never done by them. You can't apply todays cultural wishes to yesterday's reality. This treasure was and still is the property of Spain. I am proud to say I had a hand in bringing this American company to justice for it's theft of property. What Odyssey did was knowingly criminal, and this is not the first time they had done this. They lost in court on another occasion also, under very much the same circumstances. This case also resulted in a change in international maritime law which makes it more difficult for salvors to do this sort of thing.

Absolutely, this gold belongs to the people of Peru.
Spain deserves the gold stolen from the people of Peru as much as Hitler deserves the gold stolen from the Jews.
Spain committed acts ranging from cultural genocide, to outright genocide, and mass slavery in order to take this gold. They were devils to South America and deserve nothing.
It saddens me that this should go to Spain and that they should somehow be proud of such a heritage.
Is there anything that anyone can do now to correct this injustice?

The rightful claim belongs to the INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF SOUTH AMERICA

They do exist today large numbers, living in abject poverty of course, despite the propaganda effort to convince people the are nearly extinct ..or some such silliness like that..

Certainly not the government of Spain, nor the Vatican, and certainly not the Spanish settlers who now occupy those indigenous lands.

If people want their gold and other treasures back then they should fund expeditions to locate and recover it. Those that find old treasures deserve to keep it. I wish the US would state that "finders keepers" is their standard policy for handling recovered treasures. If I EVER find anything I will keep it quiet and do all recovery at night and over a long period of time so it would not arouse any curiosity. Then, I would find someone on the black market that would handle the sale. Like I said, if Spain wants all its old sunken treasure then let them fund as many expeditions as possible to find them before someone else does.


Robin Whitlock's picture

Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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