Spain v. Odyssey

By Darrin Lee Unser on February 27, 2012 |

Odyssey’s Black Swan Named Sunken Coin Treasure Lands in Spain


A story lasting over five years involving 17-tons of sunken coin treasure and legal battles is apparently ending. Spanish officials are now processing 500,000-plus gold and (mostly) silver coins along with other objects recovered from the ocean floor.

This follows a federal judge ruling last week ordering the estimated $500 million worth of recovered treasure to be turned over to Spain by Odyssey Marine Exploration (, based in Tampa, Florida. Odyssey had discovered the shipwrecked treasure in 2007 in international waters about 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar.

The Odyssey project, code-named “Black Swan,” quickly gained international attention. While Odyssey never confirmed the name of the shipwreck indicating a lack of evidence, many believed it to be that of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy). The Mercedes was in route from Portugal to Spain when it was sunk by British warships in 1804.

After recovery, the treasure was temporarily stored in Gibraltar before most of it was moved to Florida. Spain took immediate steps in the matter, going so far as seizing two Odyssey vessels and subjecting them to searches.

Spain then turned to the U.S. court system which repeatedly ruled in the sovereign nation’s favor. A position apparently supported by the U.S. State Department given WikiLeaks revelations. Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court refused to overturn lower court decisions which stated the treasure belonged to Spain. Odyssey was also denied a request to be reimbursed for preservation and storage of the treasure.

“Spain has been very short-sighted in this case,” Melinda J. MacConnel, vice president and general counsel for Odyssey, said in a statement. “They have not considered the high cost of storage and conservation of these coins, but more importantly they have failed to consider that in the future no one will be incentivized to report underwater finds. Anything found with a potential Spanish interest will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay.”

Two military transport planes were sent from the Spanish Air Force to Florida for shipment of the Black Swan treasure to Spain. Reports indicate that the bounty of gold and silver coins landed in Madrid on Saturday.

“Today a journey that began 200 years ago is finally ending. We are recovering a historical legacy and a treasure. This is not money. This is historical heritage,” Spain’s ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo, was reported as saying as the planes took off.

And if losing the treasure through U.S. Courts was not aggravating enough for Odyssey, more legal issues are apparently forthcoming. In La Linea de la Concepción, a Spanish town on the border with Gibraltar, a criminal lawsuit was filed against Odyssey for damages to Spain’s historical patrimony as well as illegal trafficking of historical items.

“We need criminal sanctions so as to set a strong precedent and ensure that such activities that destroy archaeological patrimony cannot be repeated,” said José María Lancho, a Spanish lawyer who represents Nerea Arqueologia, a company formed by archaeologists affiliated to the University of Málaga. “Even if it is good news that this treasure is now returning to Spain, the archaeological damage is irreparable because nobody except Odyssey will ever be able to understand exactly where and how these objects were found.”

Earlier this month, Odyssey announced its agreement with the British Maritime Heritage Foundation to excavate and conserve an even richer treasure from the legendary HMS Victory warship which sank in 1744. Odyssey discovered the HMS Victory shipwreck site in 2008.

“We are honored to work with the Maritime Heritage Foundation on the Victory project, an important piece of British naval heritage. Since our discovery of HMS Victory, we’ve continued to monitor the site and have sadly noted significant changes to the site including four ton cannon that have been dragged and damaged, as well as the illicit recovery of a cannon by another salvor, signs that the idea of preserving the site in situ is clearly not practical,” Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO, said in a statement. “We plan a phased approach which will include an initial non-disturbance survey and expect to begin the archaeological excavation as soon as practical.”

The value of HMS Victory’s treasure could be double that of the Black Swan with its possible three to four tons of gold coins. The ship was considered the greatest in the world at the time of her sinking.