Shipwreck treasure poised to leave US for Spain

February 23, 2012 - 6:25 PM
Shipwreck Treasure

FILE - This April 2007 photo provided by Odyssey Marine Exploration, shows Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm, left, and project manager Tom Dettweiler examining a coin recovered from the "Black Swan" shipwreck by Odyssey Marine Exploration. The transfer of 17 tons of shipwreck treasure wrested away from Odyssey to the Spanish government will be made later this week from a U.S. Air Force base in Florida, officials confirmed Tuesday night, Feb. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Odyssey Marine Exploration, File)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Peru's government filed a long-shot claim on Thursday for 17 tons of silver recovered from a 19th century shipwreck, one day before Spanish military planes were to fly the treasure out of a U.S. Air Force base.

Peru's last-minute emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court urged the justices to block transfer of the treasure to give that South American nation more time to make arguments in federal court that it is the rightful owner. Peru says the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. The appeal was directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not indicate when he would respond.

U.S. courts had previously rejected claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the coins aboard the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic while sailing back from South America in 1804. More than 200 people were aboard the galleon at the time.

The head spokesman for Peru's embassy in Washington, Rodolfo Pereira, refused to comment Thursday afternoon on the appeal. In Lima, a spokeswoman for Peru's Culture Ministry, Melanie Perez-Cartier, told The Associated Press via email that she would look into the matter, but she did not respond later or answer her telephone.

Sometime Friday, two Spanish military C-130 transport planes were to fly out from Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. The U.S. military agreed to assist Spain because of the high level of security it sought for the transfer.

Spanish officials said last week the planes would leave by Friday, and MacDill authorities planned a news conference on the base Friday morning with Spain's U.S. ambassador, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo. It wasn't exactly clear when the planes would depart or where they would land in Spain.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the Spanish government rejected Peru's late bid to continue the legal battle.

"Peru is making the same arguments that have been rejected at every level of the U.S. courts," said James Goold, a Washington attorney who has represented the Spanish government throughout. "There's absolutely nothing new in it."

The flights from MacDill are to culminate a nearly five-year legal struggle with deep-sea explorers based in Tampa who had found the shipwreck off the Portuguese coast and flew the treasure back to the U.S. via Gibraltar in May 2007.

The 594,000 silver coins and other artifacts are expected to be carried to Spain in the same white plastic buckets in which the explorers with Odyssey Marine Exploration had stored them. A federal judge ruled last week that Odyssey also must turn over some coins and artifacts that were left in Gibraltar.

At the time of the discovery, the coins were estimated to be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck treasure in history.

Odyssey Marine Exploration — which uses remote-controlled vehicles to explore the depths and bring the tiniest of items to the surface — had argued that as the finder it was entitled to all or most of the treasure. The Spanish government filed a claim in U.S. District Court 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.

Odyssey lost every round in the federal courts as it tried to hold on to the treasure, arguing that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, the company contended, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip — not a sovereign mission — at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

In a court hearing Feb. 17, Odyssey agreed to give Spain access to the treasure this week to prepare it for transport. The company also said it would no longer oppose Spain's efforts to claim it.

The company has blamed politics for the courts' decisions since the U.S. government publicly backed Spain's efforts to get the treasure returned. In several projects since then, Odyssey has worked with the British government on efforts to salvage that nation's sunken ships, with agreements to share what it recovers.

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.