Treasurer hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration, which lost perhaps its last legal battle in the United States to keep some 594,000 silver and gold coins it took from a Spanish shipwreck in 2007, will have until February 27 to ask the US Supreme Court for a review of the case that it has continuously lost for nearly five years, the lawyer representing Spain said Wednesday.
The US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Tuesday denied a request by Odyssey to keep the coins it took from the shipwreck Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes - sunk in 1804 by the British navy - until it could ask the US Supreme Court for a review. In a short one-sentence ruling, US Circuit Court Judge Susan H. Black wrote "denied" to Odyssey's motion for a stay.
An Odyssey spokeswoman said the company would have no comment on Judge Black's order.
The ruling as it stands will set legal precedent in the United States over future possession rights controversies of all shipwrecks.
The Tampa, Florida-based shipwreck finder had already lost its appeal with the Atlanta court on September 20 when a three-judge panel ruled that Spain had the legal rights to the coins based, among other things, on the 1902 Treaty of Friendship and General Relations between the United States of America and Spain. Odyssey wanted an en banc (full bench) review, but the court denied its request on November 29.
The coins, which are under the custody of the US Marshals Service in Tampa, are worth about $500 million, according to Odyssey, and have been at the center of a much-publicized legal battle in the United States.
The appeals judges will send a certified copy of Tuesday's decision within seven days to the US District Court in Tampa, where Spain challenged Odyssey's attempt to keep the coins, says James Goold, the Spanish government's lawyer in Washington. "That conveys authority back to the Tampa court to carry out its order that Odyssey release the artifacts to Spain 'within 10 days and in a manner approved by the Magistrate Judge'," Mark Pizzo, who initially ruled in Spain's favor in the case in 2009, explained to Goold in an email message.
"Odyssey could also try to get an emergency-type stay from the Supreme Court in the meantime, but they don't get a stay unless and until the Supreme Court gives them one," he said.
It is doubtful that the top court in Washington will review the marine explorer's case because justices usually hear between 65-70 oral arguments each year and review a similar number on paper. This represents less than two percent of all the petitions for review submitted annually, according to other legal experts.
The ruling as it stands will set legal precedent in the United States over possession rights of all shipwrecks. "This is excellent news," said José Ignacio Wert, the minister for education, culture and sports, on the SER radio network. "It is not going to make us rich but it will enrich us."
Wert's ministry, along with the Foreign and Defense Ministries, will be coordinating the operation to bring back 17 tons of gold and silver, in about 600 plastic bins, each weighing about 25 kilos. Besides the bureaucracy involved, the operation will logistically be a difficult one, and will involve military jets.
In May 2007, Odyssey announced its historic find in the Atlantic after secretly airlifting the coins back to Tampa from Gibraltar. For months, Odyssey denied that the coins came from a Spanish shipwreck, which company officials codenamed the Black Swan. But in September, EL PAÍS learned that Odyssey had acknowledged that the coins were Spanish in export licenses filed in Gibraltar and given by the British government to Spain.
Odyssey also said that it brought to the surface three gold boxes; copper, tin and bronze ingots; a cannonball; and a bronze pulley wheel, and estimated the value of the trove at $1.49 million. The "557 plastic buckets containing clumps of encrusted silver coins" and four copper ingots it also recovered were given an estimated $2.5 million value.
After the revelation, Odyssey embarked on a legal argument that Las Mercedes was actually a mail-delivery ship - not a military one, which would strengthen the Spanish government's claim - and that the gold and silver belonged to private citizens.