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Yo Ho! Court Rules Sunken Treasure is Spanish Property

There is little doubt that Judge Steven Merryday of the U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida, enjoyed himself on this case. After all, what's not to like -- a sunken ship, Spanish silver, stories of lost treasure, and two parties dueling in court over ownership. Must make a nice change from the eminent domain suits and the like that he usually finds on his docket.

This story may sound like another (please, no) installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it is just business as usual for Odyssey Marine Exploration, who may now have to return 17 tons of treasure including silver coins and other artifacts to the Spanish government. The court battle over ownership began in 2007, when Odyssey announced it had raised the treasure and brought it to be stored in Florida.

More precisely, the story began when the ship, now agreed by the court to be the Spanish naval vessel the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes y las Animas, sank in battle off the coast of Portugal in 1804. The government of Spain has maintained that the evidence shows the ship is indeed the Mercedes and thus the cargo belongs to them. The aptly named attorney for Spain, James Goold, said the court ruling, "... affirms that we proved beyond a doubt exactly what our archaeological, historical and legal analyses set out to show: the shipwreck from which the treasure was taken is the Spanish Navy Frigate Mercedes." 

In its court arguments Odyssey Marine fired back, saying that there is not enough proof that the cargo it raised is from the Mercedes. Further, even if the treasure was deemed to come from the hold of the doomed ship, the ship was acting on a commercial mission at the time it sank. "More than 70 percent of the coin cargo aboard never belonged to Spain. Private individuals and merchants paid a freight charge to have their private property transported," said Odyssey vice president Melinda MacConnel. This may leave the cargo open to claims from descendents of the merchants who owned the cargo.

There are also ownership claims on the horizon from the government of Peru, as they believe that the coins found in the shipwreck may have been minted in Lima. With claimants coming at the Mercedes from all sides, it seems everyone wants their piece of eight. Since the treasure estimated at a worth of about $500 million, there just might be enough to go around.

For now, Odyssey may keep its hands on the loot. The District Court has stayed the order for return of the treasure to Spain until after the Court of Appeals has heard the case. So the story continues...

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