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Five years of legal wrangle over billion dollar treasure is over

After more than 200 years and a five-year legal battle, Spanish treasure comes home.
Gold coins as they were first spotted on the seabed by Odyssea Marine Exploration
 |     |   02-27-2012
One of the world's largest shipwreck treasures has finally arrived in Spain to complete a long-delayed trip home. The journey, which began more than two centuries ago, was interrupted by war on the high seas and a nasty legal battle over ownership.
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For Spain, this sunken ship, this archaeological site, is still a warship and we still have jurisdiction over what has happened to it.

—Jose Maria Lancho, lawyer.

In 1804, the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was sunk by British warships near the port of Cadiz, killing 249 people. En route to Spain from South America, the vessel was carrying more than half a million gold and silver coins which has been valued at nearly half a billion dollars.

In 2007, U.S. deep-sea diving company Odyssey Marine Exploration utilized underwater robots to locate the long-lost vessel on the ocean floor off Portugal. The company laid claim to the bounty and spent more than $2 million to retrieve it.

The biggest trove of coins ever extracted from the deep sea, the haul was flown back to Florida, where the 17 tons of mostly 18th century silver coins have been kept in warehouses in Sarasota.

Rightful owner
Spain had argued in court that it, not the salvage company, was the rightful owner of the cargo and the ship. On February 17, a U.S. judge ordered that the coins be returned to Spain from Florida.” This a victory for Spain and the United States," said lawyer Jose Maria Lancho, who advised the Spanish government in its action against Odyssey.

"For Spain, this sunken ship, this archaeological site, is still a warship and we still have jurisdiction over what has happened to it."

The Spanish government plans to restore, conserve and catalogue the contents of the 17-tonne cargo, which it estimates to be worth 373 million euros. Spain's culture minister stated the treasure will be divided among several national museums.

Several cities are vying to put the coins on show, but the culture minister said no final decision has been made. For security reasons, the current location of the treasure has not been divulged.

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