Spain: Explorers must hand over shipwreck treasure

March 16, 2012 - 1:45 PM

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge was considering Friday whether to force Florida deep-sea explorers to hand over to Spain the last of the treasure they recovered from a 200-year-old shipwreck.

Last month, Spanish military planes flew home with nearly 600,000 silver coins and other artifacts after prevailing in a five-year legal battle over ownership with Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration. Now, Spain wants the rest of it — specifically some artifacts that Odyssey left behind in Gibraltar when it flew the coins to the United States in May 2007.

The artifacts include at least 100 silver coins, personal effects of sailors and ship equipment, said James Goold, a Washington attorney who represents the Spanish government.

In a federal court filing, Spain has asked that Odyssey be forced to hand over the remainder of the booty from the frigate Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes, which was sunk by British warships in 1804.

During a two-hour long hearing in federal court Friday morning, Goold asked U.S. Magistrate Judge James Pizzo to order Odyssey to turn the treasure in Gibraltar over to Spain and for Odyssey to pay for Spain's fees and court costs over the issue. The judge did not indicate when he might rule on the matter.

Goold also questioned some alleged discrepancies in the documented inventory of what is in a storage crate in Gibraltar. He said the judge could hold Odyssey in contempt of court.

"Gibraltar has been used to hide critical evidence in this case," Goold said. "We need to figure out what's what."

But Odyssey's lawyer said the explorers haven't been hiding anything. Melinda MacConnel said Odyssey has not been able to properly inventory the storage crate for years, in part because Spain intervened in the case. MacConnel said all of the treasure from Nuesta Senora de Las Mercedes was brought to Gibraltar, and the bulk of it then was sent to Florida — all except the crate in question, which contains the coins and other miscellaneous items.

Complicating matters, MacConnel said, is that people claiming to be the descendants of the owners of the silver aboard the ship have sued in a court in Gibraltar, saying they have a right to the treasure. Gibraltar officials are not allowing the treasure to be moved.

"Nothing has been hidden in this case," MacConnel said. "Odyssey fully intends to comply."

During an earlier ruling, Pizzo ordered Odyssey to turn over all the artifacts to Spain, regardless of the items' location.

On Friday, Pizzo wondered whether Spain could negotiate directly with Gibraltar over access to the items.

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