Mystery, Legal Fight Surround Shipwreck Treasure

Silver coins from a shipwreck.

Seventeen tons of silver coins recovered from a shipwreck in the Atlantic may be the most valuable loot ever found. Jonathan Blair/Odyssey Marine Exploration hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Blair/Odyssey Marine Exploration

A shipwreck recovered off the coast of Florida that may hold the most valuable treasure ever discovered has pitted Spain against the salvagers. But details of the bounty remain a mystery fit for a fairy tale.

A marine exploration company announced in May that it had recovered 17 tons in silver coins and other artifacts from a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean. The company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., has been mum since the first announcement, referring to the wreck only by its code name — the "Black Swan."

But that hasn't stopped speculation about the source of the treasure or the people hoping to claim it as their own.

"The only thing we're saying right now is that we've really recovered about a half-million coins, and a number of artifacts that are from the colonial period ... that were in the Atlantic Ocean," said Greg Stemm, one of the founders of Odyssey Marine.

The still-secret treasure has already been valued by experts at about $500 million.

A Battle over Booty

Odyssey Marine announced it had found the treasure only after it had unloaded the silver coins in Gibraltar, a small island just off the coast of Spain, and transported them to Tampa.

Stemm said the company has been secretive to prevent unscrupulous salvage operators from looting the site, and because it is still researching the find.

"I can tell you that as of today, I don't know what shipwreck it is. And so I don't think anybody else would know," he said.

But that has not satisfied the government of Spain. Spanish officials have filed a claim against the company and are pressing for answers. Spain's minister of culture has even threatened to use the country's navy to intercept and search Odyssey Marine's ships when they leave Gibraltar.

Odyssey Marine has agreed to make more information available on July 23, in response to the claim filed by Spain in a U.S. district court. But it is not yet clear whether the company will verify the ship's identity at that time.

Spain has retained lawyer Jim Goold, who has successfully represented the country in other admiralty cases. In previous cases involving the Juno and the La Galga — two Spanish warships found by a salvage company in 1998 — U.S. courts have ruled in favor of Spain, saying that the ships and any treasure they contained did not belong to the salvage company.

Who Has Rights to the Find?

Goold said the U.S. government supports a well-established principle called "sovereign immunity," which protects a government's right to its treasures lost at sea.

"The U.S. has a lot of Navy and other ships that have sunk around the world," he said. "The idea that ... anyone can take U.S. government property just by looking around in the water and pulling it up without authorization ... just doesn't work. And that's not what the courts say."

Stemm countered that his company does not go after ships which it can't keep.

"We won't typically go and start work on a shipwreck if we think that the ship is subject to sovereign immunity," he said.

Stemm will not say what shipwreck his company was looking for when it found the Black Swan, or what part of the Atlantic Ocean it was in. He won't even say what nation minted the silver coins that were found in the wreckage.

Rumors Swirl Around Ship's True Identity

In Britain, there is widespread speculation that the ship is actually the "Merchant Royal." The 17th-century British merchant ship was carrying Spanish silver and gold when it sank off the coast of Cornwall, a county on the southwest edge of England.

Odyssey Marine ships were known to have been working in that area for the past two years, but the company said it will neither confirm nor deny whether the find is from the "Merchant Royal."

James Delgado, head of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, an educational and scientific group that has explored dozens of shipwrecks over the past 30 years, said the question of ownership has never been properly answered.

"I think we really need to look at the question of who owns the past," he said.

Delgado questioned Odyssey Marine's practice of selling some of the artifacts it brings up from the ocean depths. He said that turns history into a commodity.

"If all shipwrecks are viewed merely as a commodity and a source of potential treasure, they're the only archaeological resource in the world that would be hit in this way and taken apart," Delgado said. "We wouldn't tolerate that on land."

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