Spain rejects Peruvian claim to shipwreck treasure

February 27, 2012 - 10:45 AM
Spain Shipwreck Treasure

In this undated photo made available by the Spain's Culture Ministry, a member of the Ministry technical crew displays some of the 594,000 coins and other artifacts found in the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic while sailing back from South America in 1804, in a warehouse in Tampa, Fla. A 17-ton trove of silver coins recovered from the Spanish galleon was set to be flown Friday Feb. 24, 2012 from the United States to Spain, concluding a nearly five-year legal struggle with Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Florida deep-sea explorers who found and recovered it. (AP Photo/Spain's Culture Ministry, HO)

MADRID (AP) — Spain on Monday rejected Peru's claim to a huge multimillion-dollar undersea treasure recovered from the wreckage of a ship that had left from Lima's port more than 200 years ago.

Spain recovered the nearly 600,000 coins — mostly silver but a few made of gold — on Saturday after they were flown to Madrid from the United States. That marked the culmination of Spain's five-year battle in U.S. courts with a Florida deep-sea exploration firm that in 2007 found the remains of a ship believed to be the Spanish frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.

The Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration found the shipwreck off Portugal near the Strait of Gibraltar, taking the booty first to the British colony of Gibraltar at Spain's southern tip and then to Florida.

On Monday, Spain's education, culture and sports minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, told a packed news conference the final U.S. court ruling stated that "the legacy of the Mercedes belongs to Spain."

None of the treasure itself was displayed at the news conference, just a few photos on a TV screen. One showed a white plastic laundry-basket type container full of dull, crud-covered silver coins, large and thin.

After two centuries under water, parts of the trove of coins are stuck together in big chunks, sometimes in the very shape of the chests or sacks they were originally stored in, said Milagros Buendia, part of the specialized team that went to Florida to get the booty.

Wert said Spain will now set about classifying and restoring the 594,000 coins and other artifacts involved before it figures out how to display them for the public.

"It will thus be a fairly complex job and is going to take some time," Wert said.

At the time of their discovery, the coins were estimated to be worth as much as $500 million (euro300 million) to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck haul in history.

Spain says the Mercedes had more than 200 people aboard when it exploded and sank in 1804 in a naval battle with the British.

Spain went ahead and transported the treasure from Florida despite a last-ditch, longshot claim to the treasure by Peru.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give Peru more time to make arguments in U.S. federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner. But that appeal was denied Friday by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Peru had argued the gold and silver on the ship was mined, refined and minted in its territory, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire.

But Carmen Marcos, deputy director of Spain's National Museum of Archaeology, said Monday the coins were minted not just in Peru but also in Bolivia, Colombia and Chile. And the whole affair involved in claiming the coins was not about monetary value but rather history, she added.

"These coins are not money. They are archaeological pieces," she told reporters.