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Odyssey Exploration ordered to return sunken treasure to Spain

TAMPA — An attorney for the Spanish government said a federal judge's ruling Tuesday means Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration will have to start making plans to hand over 17 tons of silver coins and other treasure from a sunken 19th century galleon.

Odyssey found the treasure off the Portuguese coast in 2007 in the wreck of what is believed to be the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which was sunk by British warships in 1804.

Last year, a federal appeals court in Atlanta affirmed a Tampa judge's ruling that Odyssey must give the treasure back to Spain. The company then requested a stay of court proceedings as it continued its legal fight to keep the treasure.

In court documents, Odyssey said a stay of the court proceedings is needed to prevent Spain from keeping the treasure as U.S. courts continue to consider the case. But in an order Tuesday, a federal judge in Atlanta denied Odyssey's motion for a stay.

James Goold, a Washington lawyer representing the Spanish government, said once the mandate is returned to the federal court in Tampa, the original order from the court will be reinstated. Goold said that means Odyssey will have to return the treasure to Spain within 10 days, although he expects another hearing in Tampa soon so he and Odyssey's attorneys can discuss the situation with a judge.

Odyssey said it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case, but Goold said the request doesn't stop the clock on the company being forced to hand over the treasure to Spain. Tuesday's decision, he said, "removes the latest effort by Odyssey to delay the inevitable."

"Odyssey, I believe, will have to explain how they are going to comply with the orders … properly and in a timely fashion," Goold said.

Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey vice president and general counsel, declined to comment because the court hadn't yet issued its mandate.

Odyssey made an international splash in 2007 when it recovered the coins and other artifacts fusing a remote-control underwater vehicle and brought the loot back to Tampa via Gibraltar. At the time, experts speculated the coins could be worth as much a $500 million. They are still in Odyssey's possession in an undisclosed location.

Almost immediately, the Spanish government filed a claim in federal court in Tampa claiming that it never relinquished ownership of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and its cargo.

Odyssey, whose stock closed Wednesday at $3.54, up 11 cents, had argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip — not a sovereign mission — at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo.

Record shipwreck bounty found?

Treasure hunter Greg Brooks of Sub Sea Research in Gorham, Maine, said Wednesday he has located the wreck of a British merchant ship S.S. Port Nicholson, sunk in 1942 by a German U-boat off Cape Cod during World War II while carrying what he claims was a load of platinum bars now worth more than $3 billion. If the claim proves true, it could be one of the richest sunken treasures ever discovered. But an attorney for the British government expressed doubt the vessel was carrying platinum. And if it was, in fact, laden with precious metals, who owns the hoard could become a matter of international dispute.

Odyssey Exploration ordered to return sunken treasure to Spain 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:56pm]
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