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US deep sea explorers file objection to judge’s recommendation to award treasure to Spain

Deep-sea explorers based in Florida filed an objection Tuesday to a judge’s recommendation that they give 17 tons of shipwreck treasure back to Spain.

The dispute concerns the 200-year-old wreck of a Spanish galleon that carried thousands of silver coins and other artifacts estimated to be worth $500 million. The ship is believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes y las Animas, which exploded in battle and sank in the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal in 1804, claiming the lives of 200 people.

In June, a federal magistrate judge in Tampa issued a written recommendation, saying the wreck was likely the Mercedes and accepting the Spanish government’s argument that it had never expressly surrendered ownership of the ship and its contents.

But Odyssey Marine Exploration contends there isn’t enough evidence to confirm that the cargo it recovered came from the Mercedes. The company argues that if it is, the Mercedes was engaged in commercial activity when it exploded, which nullifies Spain’s sovereign immunity claim. Odyssey filed its objection Tuesday afternoon in Tampa federal court.

“We were disappointed in the initial recommendation, but we know that admiralty law is complex, and the facts of this case are unique,” Melinda MacConnel, vice-president and general counsel for Odyssey said in a statement. “We are confident that the facts and applicable law are in our favour.”

In its objection, Odyssey lists a number of arguments disputing the judge’s conclusion that the ship is the Mercedes and that Spain is the rightful owner of the treasure.

The company says eyewitness accounts state the Mercedes sank within view of land and that the ship was carrying between 33 to 50 cannons. The site where the treasure was found is not within view of land and only 17 or 18 cannons have been found, according to the objection. Nor is there any trace of burning among the artifacts, even though the ship exploded.

“Clearly, at a minimum this record evidence raises significant factual questions about the identity of the vessel related to the site,” the objection states.

Odyssey also claims the Mercedes was engaged in commercial activity when it sank. The group cites historical documents which show the vessel transported mail, goods and passengers for freight. Twenty-five descendants of people who privately owned and commercially shipped cargo on the Mercedes have also filed claims of interest.

“Most of the individual claimants purport to descend from individuals heavily engaged in the commerce between the Americas and Spain and who represented very powerful and wealthy merchant families,” the objection filed by Odyssey states.

Odyssey says the recovery is believed to be the largest collection of coins ever excavated from a deep-ocean site. The explorers previously discovered a Civil War-era steamer off the Georgia coast that yielded 51,000 gold coins and other artifacts valued at around $70 million.

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