Odyssey Marine Exploration stock drops as judge rules it may lose treasure to Spain

TAMPA — After a two-year trans-Atlantic legal duel, a federal judge urged Odyssey Marine Exploration to hand over millions of dollars in sunken treasure to the Spanish government.

But the Tampa deep-sea salvager said Thursday it will fight the court's recommendation to restore 594,000 coins worth $500 million to Spain.

Odyssey, the world's only publicly traded company devoted to undersea treasure hunting, saw its stock drop 43 percent in a day. Its shares ended trading Thursday at $2.21.

Odyssey has tussled with Spain over ownership of the mostly silver trove that weighs 17 tons. It's part of the so-called Black Swan find announced in May 2007 and stashed in a vault somewhere in Central Florida.

In an ruling Wednesday, federal Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo said Spain is the rightful owner of the treasure once carried by the Spanish navy frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.

A British squadron sunk the Mercedes in international waters off Portugal in 1804. Spain planned to use the precious coins to help finance Napoleonic France's war against Great Britain.

After Odyssey flew the treasure back to Tampa in 550 white plastic buckets, Spanish officials called the company's employees a gang of pirates. Twice in the months after the 2007 announcement, Spain's Civil Guard seized Odyssey ships off the Spanish coast. They were released.

"We are very happy," Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde said Thursday. "This decision is very important. I am glad the judge has really seen that the ship and the treasure belong to Spain."

Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm planned to keep fighting. Another federal judge will consider Pizzo's recommendation and make a ruling.

"This case addresses some very significant legal issues, so in the beginning it became fairly clear it was going to go to the appellate court," Stemm said.

In his recommendation, Pizzo reaffirmed a nation's right to the wreckage of its sovereign warships. Spain never abandoned its claim to the vessel, and Pizzo noted that the United States protects its sunken warships.

The judge also rebuffed an attempt by Peru to get a share of the loot. Much of the silver came from South America, but in 1804 Peru was a Spanish colony, not an independent nation.

Twenty-five descendants of merchants who were transporting cargo on the ship also want a piece.

Odyssey has been salvaging heavily in European waters. In February, it announced the discovery of the HMS Victory, a British man-of-war that sank in the English Channel 264 years ago. Odyssey said it is looking for the 4 tons of gold coins that might have been aboard.

Relations with the British government have been more cordial. Before finding the Victory, Odyssey had already negotiated a loot-sharing plan with the British over the HMS Sussex.

The British agreed to split the proceeds from the 300-year-old gold-laden ship if Odyssey found it in the western Mediterranean.

The company's work is featured in an 11-part Discovery Channel series called Treasure Quest.

Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated Press and Times files.

Odyssey Marine Exploration stock drops as judge rules it may lose treasure to Spain 06/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 6:26am]

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