Byline: Associated Press/Mitch Stacy
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge on Feb. 17 signed off on a Spanish government plan to begin moving a vast shipwreck treasure from Florida to Spain, concluding a five-year legal battle with the treasure hunters who found and raised it, off the Portuguese coast.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Pizzo ordered Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration to give Spanish officials access to the 17 tons of silver coins and other artifacts beginning Feb. 21. The finds have been stored in an undisclosed facility since Odyssey salvaged them from the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in May 2007.
Odyssey, which uses remote-controlled vehicles to explore the depths and bring the tiniest of items to the surface, lost at every level of the federal court system in its attempt to keep all or most of the treasure. The Spanish government filed a claim soon after the coins were flown back to Tampa, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents. A federal district court first ruled in 2009 that the U.S. courts didn’t have jurisdiction, and ordered the treasure returned.
Melinda MacConnel, vice president and general counsel for Odyssey, said Spanish officials will be given access to the treasure and the company won’t contest the ruling. She said the company followed federal maritime law and did nothing wrong in salvaging the wreck and bringing it back to the United States without the cooperation or permission of Spain. She blamed politics for the courts’ decisions, since the U.S. government publicly backed Spain’s efforts to get the treasure returned, and she lamented that the company was unable to bring the case to trial.
She said the ruling against Odyssey will keep other explorers from working with governments on salvage projects and set the stage for the covert plundering of other shipwrecks.