Spain takes possession of 'Black Swan' treasure

Odyssey Marine transfers recovered coins, other objects to Spain
Published : 02/29/12
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The multi-year quest of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. to retain the treasure it brought up from a shipwreck that it found off the coast of Portugal and named the “Black Swan” has ended.

Spain took possession of the treasure Feb. 24, flying it as cargo aboard two C-130 Spanish military aircraft.

A Feb. 17 order signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo of the U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla., established Feb. 24 as the date that the objects collected as part of the “Black Swan” shipwreck were to be transferred to Spain.

One last legal effort to halt the transfer was made Feb. 22, when Peru filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, requesting that the court block the transfer of the treasure to provide Peru a better opportunity to present arguments that it is the rightful owner. Peru holds that the ship’s gold and silver was mined and the coins were minted in Peru while it was part of the Spanish empire. U.S. courts have previously rejected claims by the descendants of Peruvian merchants who owned coins that sank with the vessel. Justice Thomas denied the appeal.

Odyssey Marine, based in Tampa, announced the discovery on May 18, 2007, and named it the “Black Swan.” According to the firm, more than 17 tons of treasure was eventually recovered from the site, including more than 500,000 silver coins, hundreds of gold coins and additional gold items and other artifacts. At the time of discovery, Odyssey Marine believed that the find represented the largest collection of coins ever excavated from a historical shipwreck site, although company officials stated that the shipwreck area was so large as to make positive identification of the specific vessel impossible.

Throughout the dispute, Spain contended that the “Black Swan” was actually a Spanish warship that sank in 1804 — the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes — and that it was Spanish property.

The U.S. courts looked at the ship in a contemporary historical context and decided in 2009 that the court was without jurisdiction to decide on salvage and possessory claims under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. This was affirmed in 2011 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in a 54-page decision where it found that the proper standards were applied and that the lower courts were correct in ordering the ship to Spain’s custody. Odyssey appealed the court of appeals’ decision and its appeal was denied on Jan. 31.

The Feb. 17 order required Odyssey Marine to furnish at its expense to Spain by Feb. 21 a verified inventory of the objects it has recovered in the shipwreck. To help preserve the objects, the order specifies, “This inventory should include Odyssey’s records reflecting the cataloging and tracking for the res [the objects identified from the shipwreck], as well as the disclosure of the chemical solutions to which the res has been exposed and in which any res is immersed.”

By Feb. 21, Odyssey Marine had to make the shipwreck accessible to Spain so that Spain’s representatives or agents could inspect, account and consider the logistical needs for the orderly custody and transfer of the shipwreck. This is to be done at Spain’s expense.

Odyssey is also to make the shipwreck and items recovered from it available for inspection by the U.S. Marshals Service. Odyssey was directed to transfer the objects to Spain’s custody on Feb. 24, and Spain, rather than the court, will be the custodian of the objects. Spain has asked for the recovered property rather than have it be returned to the ocean floor. Officials from Spain have said that the coins will likely be exhibited in one or more Spanish museums rather than be sold.

In a Feb. 22 statement from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, officials said that they were working with the Spanish government to return the treasure, adding, “The U.S. Air Force has an excellent relationship with the Spanish Air Force and we are working closely with them to ensure a safe and secure mission.” 

The exact location where the coins were being stored had not been disclosed by Odyssey Marine, which spent millions stabilizing and conserving the recovered coins and other objects. The court order does not require Spain to reimburse Odyssey for costs related to the conservation and recovery of the treasure.

Spain filed a motion Feb. 17 outlining expenses that it was prepared to pay to Odyssey when Odyssey served as substitute custodian of the vessel. According to the Spain’s filing, Numismatic Guaranty Corp. served as the conservator and Spain agreed to reimburse $412,814.02, primarily for conservation services billed by NGC. ■

Editor's note: This version of the article is updated from the version appearing in the print and digital editions of the March 12 issue of Coin World.

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