Spain wins battle for shipwreck treasure
After 200 years at the bottom of the sea, $500m worth of imperial Spanish coins reaches Madrid.
Last Modified: 25 Feb 2012 23:39

A haul of gold and silver coins salvaged from a sunken Spanish galleon has finally arrived in Spain after five years of legal ownership wrangles.

The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a 49-gun navy frigate, set sail from the coast of Peru - then a colony of Spain - with coins to help replenish the Spanish treasury's coffers.

In 1804, British warships attacked the ship as the frigate was approaching the Spanish port of Cadiz and the ship went down, with 249 killed.

US firm Odyssey Marine Exploration found the 17 tonnes of coins in a wreck off Portugal's Atlantic coast in 2007.

Spain had argued in court that it, not the salvage company, was the rightful owner of the cargo and the ship, and a US judge ordered on February 17 that the coins be returned from Florida.

"For Spain, this sunken ship, this archaeological site, is still a warship and we still have jurisdiction over what has
happened to it,"  said the lawyer Jose Maria Lancho, who advised the Spanish government in its action against Odyssey.

"Flies in the face"

The company said it would abide by the ruling, although a spokeswoman said it "flies in the face of all legal precedent".

The Spanish government plans to restore, conserve and catalogue the contents which it estimates to be worth $496 million.

Spain has not said where it will keep the coins in the meantime, for security reasons.

Despite an ongoing battle with high unemployment and debt concerns, Spain's Culture Ministry has ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to pay off the country's national debt, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Instead the coins will be exhibited in Spanish museums.

Peru made an emergency appeal to the US Supreme Court on Thursday, stating its own claim on the coins on the basis that they were mined and minted in the country while it was part of the Spanish empire.

But that claim was turned down by Judge Clarence Thomas on Friday.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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