The Spanish government has won a two-year legal battle against commercial marine archaeologist firm Odyssey, which Spain accused of plundering its national heritage.
The Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered 17 tons of gold and silver from a sunken vessel they code-named the “Black Swan” in March 2007. The Nasdaq-listed company refused to reveal the location of the wreck insisting that it had been found in international waters and therefore beyond the legal jurisdiction of any one country.
But when the record haul was announced Spain came to suspect the treasure had been looted from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate laden with bullion from the Americas that sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in October 1804.
Spain branded the Odyssey team “21st century pirates” and sent its navy to intercept vessels owned by Odyssey as they explored the waters around Spain. They seized equipment and records but failed to find the salvaged coins which had already been secretly flown out to a warehouse in Tampa, Florida.
In May 2007 the Spanish government launched legal proceedings with the US courts against Odyssey arguing that the wreck was protected by “sovereign immunity” which prohibits the unauthorised disturbance or commercial exploitation of state-owned naval vessels.
In a landmark ruling on Wednesday a judge at the Federal Court in Tampa found against Odyssey and ordered the treasure to be returned to Spain.
Angeles Gonzales-Sinde, Spain’s minister of culture, welcomed the decision. “The Judge saw that the ship and its contents belong to Spain. It’s a hugely important ruling and one that will set a precedent for future claims.”
The ruling could have an impact on future finds by the company, which is in talks with the British government over salvaging the wreck of the HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship believed to be carrying 10 tonnes of gold when it sank off the coast of Spain during a storm in 1694.
Odyssey said it will appeal the court’s decision. “I’m confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain’s claim,” said Gregg Stemm, the CEO of Odyssey. “We’ll be back to argue the merits of the case.”