MADRID — Spain said Monday that it will soon send hulking military transport planes to Florida to retrieve 17 tons of treasure that Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration found but ultimately lost in U.S. federal courts, a find experts have speculated could be the richest shipwreck treasure in history.
The Civil Guard said Monday that agents would shortly be on their way to take possession of the booty, worth an estimated $504 million, and two Spanish Hercules transport planes will bring it back.
Last week, a federal judge ordered Odyssey to give Spanish officials access to the silver coins and other artifacts starting today.
Jim Goold, whose Washington, D.C., firm, Covington & Burling, provided legal defense for Spain, would not disclose the specifics of the pickup, but said it would likely be toward the end of the week.
Odyssey declined to comment on the transport.
Odyssey found the coins in a Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, in 2007 off Portugal. Spain argued successfully in court that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents.
The Spanish Culture Ministry said Monday the coins are classified as national heritage and as such must stay inside the country and will be displayed in one or more Spanish museums. It ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to ease Spain's national debt.
Besides its debt woes, Spain is saddled with a nearly dormant economy and a 23 percent jobless rate.
Odyssey made an international splash in 2007 when it recovered the 594,000 coins and other artifacts from the Atlantic Ocean near the Straits of Gilbraltar. At the time, experts said the coins could be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck treasure in history.
The company said in earnings statements that it has spent $2.6 million salvaging, transporting, storing and conserving the treasure.
Odyssey fought Spain's claim to the treasure, arguing that the wreck was never positively identified as the Nuestra Senora 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, Odyssey argued. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.
The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was sunk by British warships in the Atlantic in 1804 while sailing back from South America with more than 200 people on board.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Behrman contributed to this report.