Conservation Heritage Spain

Cache of sunken coins returned to Spain

The US Supreme Court denied a Florida marine salvage company's appeal over $500m treasure from a sunken Spanish ship

The Odyssey Explorer being led into the port of Algeciras in 2007

A trove of gold and silver coins valued at $500m has been handed over to Spain following the US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an emergency appeal from the Florida-based ocean salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, which had asked the court to block a lower court decision that ordered the company to hand over the treasure. Odyssey had been locked in a legal battle over the cache since it was salvaged from international waters around 100 miles off the Straits of Gibraltar in March 2007. The case has drawn ire from archaeologists and the heritage community who say that treasure hunting contradicts the 2001 Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage which states that this heritage “shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods”.

Odyssey sought permission from Spain to recover and sell treasures from shipwrecks of interest to Spain in 2006. Spain declined the request and when the company sent the trove of around 594,000 coins by air to the US immediately after its recovery, the Spanish navy forced the vessel into the port of Algeciras and arrested the ship’s captain, who was released shortly thereafter. In the court cases that followed, Odyssey maintained that what they named the “Black Swan” treasure was from a commercial vessel and claimed the trove under the “finders keepers” rule of law, while Spain exercised its sovereign immunity rights over the treasure, asserting it came from the Spanish warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which was sunk by the British navy in 1804 on its return journey from Peru. In 2009, a federal court in Tampa ruled in favour of Spain (The Art Newspaper, July/August 2009, p8). Odyssey then appealed against the decision.

Profiting from heritage

“Any attempt to profit from underwater cultural heritage is disturbing. It goes against Unesco’s 2001 convention that says commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is unacceptable,” says Richard Leventhal, a professor, curator and director of the Cultural Heritage Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “It would be a major loss if this treasure was sold and dispersed,” says Damian Robinson, the director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Oxford University’s Institute for Archaeology. “The significance of this case lies not only in the scale of the material excavated, but in the issue of who owns the heritage and what they should be able to do with it. Spain is reasserting its right to its sunken heritage, but not everyone will take Spain’s lead.”

Others, including Joe Flatman, a senior lecturer at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, while ethically opposed to salvage operations, see ambiguities. “I profit from archaeology as an academic and some would argue that this is a grey area—selling knowledge versus selling material recovered from these sites,” he says. Flatman feels that the complicated laws are the real issue. “International sea law is impossibly vague,” he says, noting that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was designed as an international economic agreement for shipping, and heritage just happens to fall within its rubric.

According to Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey’s vice president and general council, the court’s findings “go against all legal precedent”. Speaking to The Art Newspaper prior to turning over the treasure to Spain in late February, she said that the company is “considering all legal options”. “Odyssey voluntarily brought the coins into the US admiralty court system, the only court in the world which has so far provided any protection for shipwrecks in international waters,” she says.

“Sadly, we believe this case will have a negative effect on Spanish underwater cultural heritage. It does not encourage those with finds to report them,” says MacConnel. She cites the success of the UK’s Portable Antiquity Scheme, which rewards finders for their discoveries, in increasing the number of finds reported.

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6 Jan 14
17:15 CET


Spain killed and stole treasures/gold from Latin America...With this court case I'm sure no one, in their right mind will declare they found any treasure from that day forward...

3 Dec 12
18:18 CET


"Resurrected gold" remains a worthless commodity if any moral sense of justice remains buried by such egalitarian academics as Richard Leventhal. His statement in the above article reflects as vicious a hatred of the good as his fictional counterpart Ellsworth Toohey in Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead". Would that some Howard Roark or Ragnar Danneskjold had destroyed the find than to let it be seized by such miserable excuses for human beings as now dominate the courts, governments, and academia the world over. From imprisoning scientists for not predicting an earthquake in Italy, to disgustingly defacing tobacco products in Australia to expelling a biology student (and prosecuting others) in England for expressing something regarded by someone as offensive on Twitter or Facebook...everywhere, and in myriad areas of human endeavor, individuals are under egalitarian assault - for being individuals, for working to achieve personal values, *because* such values *are* personal!

17 Mar 12
14:14 CET


As it does not appear to be disputed that: 1) Odyssey tried without success to include Spain 'at the table' before beginning any recovery work, 2) the vast majority of the specie found on the seabed was not the property of either Spain or Peru, but of private owners (thus the ship was not performing an 'exclusively' military or sovereign misson), and 3) it has not even now been demonstrated conclusively that the treasure site is the Mercedes - Contemporary 1804 eyewitness reported that the Mercedes sunk within sight of land, which the find-site is not - This case seems to have been decided not by the established law of the sea, but in an attempt to soothe diplomatic relations. Odyssey does a highly professional job on their sites archaeologically, and this sort of opinion profoundly discourages other salvors. The inevitable result is that many shipwrecks will now never be sought nor found, and will simply deteriorate and/or be buried in the seabed, and lost to us forever.

15 Mar 12
15:19 CET


Historic properties and Ultralight materials are bought and sold daily world wide. The UNESCO treaty provide guidelines and punitive recommendations but not one dime for preservation. 590,000 silver coins are not necessary for a collection. Do not let archaeology be co-opted by zealots and folks with hidden agendas. Do some research start with the back room deals (see wikeaks). And think for a minute since Spain in spite of competing claims from countries where this treasure originated climes it and swooped in and took it with the help of the USA. In the future I am sure we will see companies like Odyssey working directly with ex colonies of Spain and then let us see how the world views the cofis action of treasures lost for hundreds of years under the guise of sacred cultural property. What a joke there are over a thousand wrecks off Spain some very valuable and instead of looking and preserving them they steal what has already been found. How similar to their past.

15 Mar 12
15:19 CET


This sickens me so much. To read that the US Government made a behind the scenes deal to trade for a stolen painting hanging in their museum all for one person to benefit? DISGUSTING. Our government and their good ole boy mentality screwed this company out of what should've been theirs and their share holders. They didn't even bother to make sure they were given a finders fee or a bill for the expenses this company incurred. It just makes me ill.

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