Shipwreck treasure returns to Spain from Florida

DANIEL OCHOA DE OLZA Associated Press Published:

MADRID (AP) -- Two military planes carrying 17 tons of silver and gold coins scooped up from a sunken Spanish warship landed in Madrid on Saturday, ending a more than 200-year odyssey that took the treasure from an ocean floor to Florida courtrooms.

The planes landed with the 594,000 coins and other artifacts retrieved after a five-year legal wrangle with a Florida-based salvage company, which had taken the haul to the U.S. in May 2007.

Deep sea explorers found the treasure in a shipwreck, believed to be Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal's Atlantic coast. British warships had sunk it during a 1804 gunbattle as it approached Spain as part of a fleet that had traveled from South America. The Mercedes was believed to have had 200 people aboard when it exploded and sank.

Once the treasure is offloaded from the planes it will be transported to an undisclosed location, state broadcaster RTVE said.

A detail of 30 officers from Spain's paramilitary Civil Guard force protected the coins once they landed. Civil Guard spokesman Miguel Tobias said everyone had breathed a sigh of relief at having the treasure back safely on Spanish soil.

"There were some storms on the way over," said Tobias, explaining why the two Hercules C-130 transports had landed at Torrejon de Ardoz military air base late.

The trove was transported to Spain despite a last-ditch claim to the treasure by Peru, the South American country from which the coins first set off more than two centuries ago.

"The coins were made from raw material obtained from mines that are currently on Peruvian soil and were struck at the Lima mint," according to a Peruvian foreign ministry statement from Friday.

In 1804, Peru was the local seat of the Spanish crown in South America and documents held in Spain's archives show that Mercedes was commissioned by King Charles IV to transport and protect a shipment of coins and bullion at the request of a noble family in Lima.

Peru said in the statement it would maintain its claim despite losing an appeal Friday and the rejection by U.S. courts of previous claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the shipment.

Odyssey Marine Exploration made international headlines when it discovered the wreck, estimating the trove to be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, making the haul one of the richest ever. The Tampa-based salvage outfit had used a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths and bring items including cannon balls and other metal fragments to a surface ship, and argued that it was entitled to the treasure.

The Spanish government challenged Odyssey's ownership in U.S. District Court soon after the coins were flown back to Tampa, relying on documents from its naval archive which listed Mercedes as a naval warship.

International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers and the Spanish government successfully argued that it had never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents.

A federal district court first ruled in 2009 that U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction, and ordered the treasure returned.

Odyssey then lost every round in federal courts trying to hold on to the treasure, as the Spanish government painted them as modern-day pirates plundering the nation's cultural heritage.

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Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.