TREASURE TUG OF WAR

Odyssey puts up new hurdles in battle with Spain over Mercedes coins

Lawyer for Spanish state files list of grievances over haul of gold and silver Some coins have already been packaged to facilitate their sale to collectors Odyssey argues that state would have to pay another company for storage costs Treasure hunter may have further haul of coins in Gibraltar

The cofounder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm (l), examines coins recovered from the Mercedes.
The cofounder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm (l), examines coins recovered from the Mercedes. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Spain has filed a list of grievances with a US federal court against Odyssey Marine Exploration, raising suspicions that the Tampa, Florida-based treasure hunter is hoarding – even preparing to sell – some of the historic silver and gold coins it has been ordered to turn over to the Spanish government.

Odyssey, which has one last legal longshot to keep the treasure it recovered from a 19th-century shipwreck, assuming the US Supreme Court agrees to hear its case, appears to be putting up new hurdles in an effort to block Spanish officials from taking home the estimated 594,000 coins and other artifacts the deep-water explorer plucked from the bottom of the sea.

Some 200 silver coins have already been packaged in such a way that they could be sold to collectors, according to the Spanish government’s lawyer in the case, who added that Odyssey has told Spain that if it wants its coins, it must pay close to $200,000 to a separate firm that safeguarded the historic currency while the battle played out in the courts.

Odyssey has also forewarned Spain that it will not be turning over a share of the treasure that is currently being stored in Gibraltar – including an undisclosed amount of additional silver coins and historic artifacts that came from the sunken Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes – because that trove is outside the US court’s jurisdiction.

In court papers filed on Monday, and seen by EL PAÍS, Spain’s lawyer James Goold asked the federal court in Tampa to order Odyssey to comply with a judicial order and release the entire trove to the Spanish government as soon as possible. Attached to the filing are a host of exhibits including descriptions – made public for the first time – of what Odyssey actually brought up to the surface back in 2007.

On February 9, the US Supreme Court denied Odyssey’s motion for an emergency stay of the lower court’s ruling issued in 2009 ordering the publicly traded firm to hand over the coins to Spain. Odyssey asked for more time until it could file a petition for review with the justices in Washington later this month. Now a federal magistrate in Tampa, where the case originated, has scheduled a hearing on Friday to hear Spain’s latest complaints against Odyssey and discuss the logistics of the transfer.

After the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last September upheld the Tampa judge’s decision, Odyssey told Spain that it would not offer any help in getting the coins out of a storage facility owned by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation Collectibles Group (NGC) of Sarasota, Florida.

In 2007, Odyssey hired NGC after it was granted permission by the court to help keep and preserve the coins, which were placed under federal protection, until the case was settled. The following year Spanish lawyers and Culture Ministry officials were permitted to inspect the treasure for the first time.

Goold tells the court in his filing that Odyssey was only authorized to safe keep the coins and not “package artifacts for sale.”

“While the coins from the Mercedes have been [under legal custody] at the storage facility approximately two hundred of them have been encased in transparent plastic or Lucite casings. The casings prominently display the NGC logo and other information apparently intended to promote the coins for sale. Spain would not object if the casings were temporary protective holders, but they are not: the plastic casing is a sealed, solid block similar to a souvenir paperweight. Spain is informed that the purpose of this [is] to enhance marketability to collectors.”

Spanish experts also found 99 percent of the coins and artifacts “submerged in aqueous solutions.” Odyssey says that NGC won’t identify the names of the chemicals because they are trade secrets. Nevertheless, Goold tells the court that Odyssey and NGC may be altering the historic state that the coins were found by separating clumps of silver and gold through chemical processes. “The apparent purpose of this is to prepare the coins for sale, not safekeeping,” he writes.

According to an artifact summary of the so-called “Black Swan” project – Odyssey’s codename for the ship – and filed with the court, the shipwreck recovery that took place in early 2007 off the coast of Portugal yielded a substantial trove. Besides the coins, Odyssey brought back bronze and copper ingots, pulley wheels, wooden fragments from “possibly a chest,” cannonballs, and rectangular and oval shaped boxes made of gold.

“The small number of coins recovered from the ‘Black Swan’ site evaluated to date are almost exclusively milled coinage struck in South American Spanish Crown Colonies,” Odyssey says in its report in 2008. The firm had long argued in public then that it didn’t know whether the coins were Spanish, but the report describes them as “reales” in eight, four, two and one denominations.

In a November 3, NGC CEO Steven Eichenbaum advised Spain that it had placed a lien on the treasure it was holding in lieu of $185,159 for conserving and storing the coins since 2007. “Release of the coins from our possession will not occur until the lien is satisfied in full,” Eichenbaum wrote.

Then Odyssey told Spain that “whoever ultimately takes possession and ownership of the coins would pay NGC.”

“I am sure that you are not suggesting that Spain would gladly accept all benefit and financial value of the coins, but would refuse to pay for their storage and conservation to date,” Odyssey lawyer and vice president Melinda MacConnel wrote Goold in a letter dated November 22.

Spain has asked the judge to order Odyssey to fulfill the obligations it promised, including paying NGC, when it petitioned the court to allow it to hold the coins under the US Marshals’ supervision.

MacConnel has also told Spain that it won’t turn over the artifacts that are being kept in Gibraltar. Odyssey secretly airlifted the coins from the British territory in early 2007 and later that year its ship, the Explorer, was boarded by the Civil Guard when it crossed Spanish waters trying to reach Gibraltar again to reportedly retrieve the rest of the treasure.

According to that inventory filed with the court, Odyssey is storing in Gibraltar an undisclosed amount of silver coins, metal buckles, fragments of a coin bag and wooden crates encrusted with coins, gold jewelry, metal buckles, brass and glass optical lenses, ceramic shards and a glass bottle stopper.

“Due to Spain’s interference, those items never came under the jurisdiction of the US court and were never in the custody of the US Marshal, so they would not be subject to any order of the court,” MacConnel wrote in a letter dated October 12.

Spain argues that it must comply with the courts’ ruling and turn over everything it has that came from the Mercedes, regardless of where it is located.

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