A federal judge ruled this week that 500,000 antique silver coins found by Tampa's Odyssey Marine Exploration should return to Spain.
But Judge Steven Merryday's ruling isn't the last word in the legal wrangling over hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sunken treasure. The case now moves to federal appeals court in Atlanta.
Spain claims 17 tons of precious metal Odyssey recovered in 2007 from the 1804 shipwreck of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. The warship was en route from South America to Spain when a British warship sank it off the coast of Portugal.
Odyssey claimed possession of the hoard on the theory that the warship was acting as a cargo vessel by transporting 70 percent of the treasure for private 19th century owners.
Merryday rejected the argument.
"The ineffable truth of this case is that the Mercedes is a naval vessel of Spain and that the wreck of this naval vessel, the vessel's cargo, and any human remains are the natural and legal patrimony of Spain … despite any man's aspiration to the contrary," Merryday said in his court order this week.
Odyssey flew the treasure to Florida "without the consent of Spain and athwart venerable principles of law," Merryday said.
The coins are stashed under lock and key outside of Tampa, where they will stay pending the appeal.
In predicting victory in the higher court, Odyssey cited three famous sunken treasure salvage rulings decided on appeal. One was the Atocha, the Spanish treasure ship found near Key West by Florida treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
"Judge Merryday's ruling serves to move this case to the appellate court faster, where we feel confident that the legal issues are clearly in our favor," Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm said in a statement.
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.