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Spain Battles for Treasure Raised from Shipwreck


A court in Tampa, Florida may decide who gets the biggest treasure ever salvaged from a shipwreck. The court is studying evidence presented by Spain. It wants to claim some 17 tons of silver and gold coins and other artifacts. They were all retrieved last year from the ocean floor by a Tampa-based company known as Odyssey Marine Exploration. But before you say finders keepers, you might want to listen to this report from Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Spain says the treasure came from the Spanish warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804. There were hundreds of thousands of old Spanish coins, and other items such as cufflinks worn by the sailors. The treasure's worth is estimated at a half a billion dollars. But the Spanish government's lawyer in the U.S., Jim Goold, says it's not about the value of the find. He says what Odyssey did was immoral and illegal.


Mr. JIM GOOLD (Attorney): If you go to the battle site of Gettysburg and take away the wallets or the cufflinks or the coins in the pockets of the people who died in the service of their country, that's unacceptable. If you go to the site of the battleship Arizona, which has very strong historical parallels to the Mercedes and take the private effects of the people who died on that ship, you'd go to jail.

SOCOLOVSKY: Goold says that just as the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor triggered America's declaration of war against Japan, the British bombardment of the Mercedes precipitated Spain's entry into the Napoleonic Wars.

Mr. GOOLD: We know where that ship sank and we know that this company was at that scene when it was working secretly.

Ms. MELINDA MACCONNEL (Odyssey Marine Exploration): We have found no vessel at this site.

SOCOLOVSKY: Odyssey's vice president, Melinda MacConnel, says what they found on the seabed was only a vessel's cargo.


Ms. MACCONNEL: And while Spain is making all these claims that this vessel is in fact conclusively the Mercedes, we have no vessel and we're talking about a claim, not to a vessel, but to cargo.

SOCOLOVSKY: She denies Spain's charge that Odyssey disturbed a gravesite.

Ms. MACCONNEL: If the vessel related to the cargo that we have found is proven to be the Mercedes, since that ship sunk over 200 years ago, it is highly unlikely that we would ever find human remains. And I suspect that their references to a gravesite, etc., is made really to inflame the passion of the public.

SOCOLOVSKY: Spain says its conclusions come from evidence Odyssey was ordered to make available for inspection. That evidence includes coins that were minted in Peru, the Mercedes' departure point. For the record, the Ministry of Culture in Madrid rules out the possibility of a claim from Peru, or for that matter from any other former Latin America colony on gold shipped to Spain hundreds of years ago. Much of it came on galleons that sailed into the southern Spanish port of Cadiz. One treasure hunter who has researched old cargo manifests estimates that there's more gold off Spain's southern Andalucian coast than in its central bank.

(Soundbite of waves)

SOCOLOVSKY: Alton Cottisbay(ph), a diver from the Andalucian Center for Marine Archeology, surfaces and climbs into a rubber dingy.

Ms. PEPI MARTI(ph) (Archeologist): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Get into the water, Pepi Marti tells the other archeologists; the visibility is great.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

SOCOLOVSKY: They're out on a surveying expedition but still find a small Phoenician vase about ten feet down. These archeologists routinely pick up artifacts they fear may be plundered, though they say shipwrecks should be left undisturbed whenever possible. But their publicly funded operation can only afford a rubber boat and some diving gear. They can only dream of the deep water robot and sonar equipment that the Florida firm uses to plumb the ocean's depths.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.