The U.S. government provided Spanish authorities confidential
customs documents prepared by Odyssey Marine Exploration concerning
disputed treasure coins, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released
Several cables were released that described how U.S. ambassadors
offered confidential customs documents prepared by Odyssey Marine
Exploration, a Florida-based treasure salvors firm, to Spain, in
return for assistance in helping return an Impressionist painting to a
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The ‘Black Swan’
In March 2007, Odyssey Marine, Tampa, Fla., discovered a major
shipwreck on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, in international waters,
that contained nearly 600,000 silver coins. Odyssey named the find the
Spain has argued that the “Black Swan” is really the Spanish naval
vessel the Mercedes, a Spanish frigate that exploded in 1804. Spain
never abandoned the sovereignty of the vessel and has argued that the
warship should be given the same rights as American lost naval vessels
where title remains with the United States.
Odyssey Marine has argued that even if the “Black Swan” is the
same ship as the Mercedes, the ship was serving a commercial,
nonmilitary purpose when it sank and the majority of coins do not
belong to Spain as the ship was carrying commercial goods from Peru.
In 2009, a U.S. district judge ruled that Odyssey Marine should
return the treasure to Spain and Odyssey has appealed the decision.
As Spain sought to recover the “Black Swan” treasure, the leaked
cables indicate that U.S. ambassador to Spain Eduardo Aguirre tried to
appeal to Spain’s interest in keeping the “Black Swan” treasure. In
exchange for U.S. cooperation in protecting Spain’s interest in the
shipwreck, Aguirre would get assistance in navigating the return of a
painting — an 1897 Impressionist city scene by Camille Pissarro — to
U.S. citizen Lily Cassirer, who was forced to sell the picture for a
few hundred dollars to obtain an exit visa as she fled Germany in
1939. Cassirer is now deceased and her heirs are seeking the painting.
The painting is now in the collection of a Madrid museum, the
Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the museum refuses to return the painting.
The cable stated that although the two claims were on different
legal tracks, “it was in both governments’ interest to avail
themselves of whatever margin for manouevre they had, consistent with
their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favored
the bilateral relationship.”
In Odyssey Marine’s lawsuit to gain title to the coins, the U.S.
government filed a brief with the court that sided with Spain.
Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO, has stated, “The possibility that someone
in the U.S. Government came up with this perfidious offer to sacrifice
Odyssey, its thousands of shareholders, and the many jobs created by
the company in exchange for the return of one painting to one
individual with political connections is hard to believe.”
Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey vice president and general counsel,
stated in a press release: “Since the U.S. State Department first
became involved in the ‘Black Swan’ case, we’ve questioned its
motives, especially given that its view of sovereign immunity is
contrary to the position always advanced by the US Government prior to
this case. These Cables may explain the inconsistency. We will
certainly be interested to follow up with this new evidence and
determine its relevance to the case and the appeal.”
Stemm added in a press release: “I think that the Cables make it
clear through official sources that Odyssey has always bent over
backwards to work cooperatively with the Spanish Government —
something that was denied by certain Spanish officials. ...”
A hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh
Circuit is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Odyssey’s appeal of the
district court’s dismissal of the “Black Swan” case on Feb. 28, 2011. ■