Diving into the Wreckage

By Elkin, Mike | Newsweek International, August 31, 2009 | Go to article overview

Diving into the Wreckage


Elkin, Mike, Newsweek International


Byline: Mike Elkin

Peering at the live video feed from an underwater camera, the crew of the Odyssey Explorer couldn't believe what they saw: a blanket of coins, strewn across an area the size of six football fields, 1,100 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The bounty--594,000 silver and gold coins--represents one of the largest treasure hauls recovered to date. But who owns it? Two years later, a U.S. federal court is still trying to figure it out.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, which probes the seas for sunken treasure ships, says it's theirs. In March 2007, the Florida-based company discovered and salvaged the shipwreck off the coast of Portugal using remote-controlled submarines. It assessed the haul's value at about $500 million. But when the company filed a salvage claim in Tampa, the Spanish government objected, arguing that the loot came from its Navy ship the Mercedes, which was carrying coins from South America to southern Spain in 1804 when it sank during a battle with British warships.

On June 3, a U.S. judge agreed that the ship was the Mercedes, based on its location and the artifacts found, and recommended that Odyssey return the treasure to Spain. A district court is reviewing the case and is expected to issue a verdict by December. David Bederman, an Odyssey director and international-law professor at Emory University, maintains it's not clear that the ship was the Mercedes and, regardless, Spain shouldn't get all the treasure. …

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