TREASURE TROVE

Not all treasures are finders-keepers as Mercedes coins finally return

Ambassador Dezcallar salutes end to "voyage that began 200 years ago" Researcher was incredulous when she learned Odyssey used her to track haul

After 200 years, some 594,000 silver and gold coins, plus a store of historic artifacts, have finally come home to Spain. The 19th-century cargo that was pulled five years ago from the ocean floor by the US sunken shipwreck hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration is being kept under tight security at the Culture Ministry headquarters in Madrid until historians can decide which museums or institutes will be awarded the opportunities to display the trove.

It was the largest haul in history ever to be brought up from the ocean depths; it was also the focus of an unprecedented legal battle in the United States between Spain and the Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey, which fought tooth and nail to keep the coins, estimated to be worth $500,000 and which were on board Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes when it was sunk in 1804.

“Today, the voyage that began 200 years ago — the mission La Mercedes was on — finally ends, summed up Spain’s Ambassador to Washington, Jorge Dezcallar.

On Friday Dezcallar witnessed how US soldiers and workers at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force base hauled the 17-ton load on board two Hercules C-130 cargo planes the Spanish government had sent to bring back the trove. Since September 2009, when a Tampa federal court ruled for the first time that the treasure belonged to Spain, Odyssey has lost all its legal battles. The US Supreme Court on February 3 rejected Odyssey’s last-ditch bid to block the delivery. What was the Spanish crown’s property in 1804 still belongs to the modern Spanish state, the US courts ruled.

But before determining that this property was Spain’s patrimony, the courts had to look at historical records and some of the best supporting evidence came from a Canadian-born researcher who had been employed and reportedly ended up being duped by Odyssey. In late March 2007, surveyors on board Odyssey’s Ocean Alert craft, scouring an area 100 miles off the coast of the Algarve, Portugal, spotted and photographed an anomaly on the ocean floor that ultimately turned out to be a treasure-laden shipwreck. Within days, Odyssey dispatched its Ocean Explorer ship equipped with a specialized robot with the capacity to suck up objects from the ocean floor.

On May 18 — after Odyssey had secretly airlifted the 594,000 coins and other artifacts from Gibraltar — the treasure hunters announced their great find and codenamed the shipwreck “Black Swan.” For months, Odyssey officials said they couldn’t confirm the origin of the shipwreck and much less the coins, despite the profile on the currency clearly matching the large-nose image of Carlos IV.

What do you think you are? A bunch of Indiana Joneses?”

But before making this incredible find, in November 2006, Odyssey had contracted Canadian-born researcher Victoria Stapells Johnson. For years, Stapells, who has Spanish nationality, has scoured ancient archives and pored over documents at Seville’s Archives of the Indies and other libraries. Odyssey hired her to look for documents relating to ships sunk off the coasts of Gibraltar, Mexico and Portugal, including information on the Mercedes. Odyssey told her it wanted the information for a series of television documentaries it was producing.

On May 19, Stapells was astonished when she learned about the repatriation of the coins. “I was horrified when I saw pictures of the white buckets loaded on the plane. I knew right away it was Las Mercedes.” She immediately contacted Odyssey by email. An official told her he couldn’t talk because of confidentiality issues before adding that the ship “carried the same brand name of an automobile.”

“What do you think you are? A bunch of Indiana Joneses?” she responded. Stapells gave all her papers and research to the Civil Guard and National Intelligence Center (CNI). Odyssey’s lawyer called her to warn her that if she talked she would be violating confidentiality clauses and advised her to fly to the Bahamas at Odyssey’s expense to avoid talking to Spanish investigators.

Odyssey has denied it wanted to whisk Stapells out of Spain or threatened to file a lawsuit against her. Stapells’ research and cooperation were key elements in Spain’s subsequent legal victories. Odyssey long argued before the federal court that it could not release the name of the sunken vessel it found to keep poachers from scanning the area, and to protect its own trade secrets. What is good for Coca-Cola should also apply to Odyssey, its lawyers said. But the judges didn’t buy it and ordered Odyssey to hand over all the materials, including research documents and working papers in its possession.

Another important historical paper that supported Spain’s theory that Las Mercedes was on an official mission was a letter written on October 20, 1804 by José de Bustamante y Guerra, who was held captive by the British in Plymouth inside his cabin aboard La Medea. Bustamante was head of the squadron in charge of not only Las Mercedes but three other frigates. After learning the official version of the Spanish frigate’s fate through England’s government gazette, he took out his quill and wrote a few lines.

“On this occasion, just as has occurred during my 34 years of services to his HR [royal highness], I have always tried to jealously and lovingly carry out each activity for the sake of royal service, which is what all men of honor should do.”

Las Mercedes — along with La Medea, La Fama and La Clara — had left Montevideo, Uruguay on August 9, 1804, carrying passengers along with fruit and treasures from the Spanish colonies. When it tried to reach the port at Cádiz, the British, under the command of Commodore Graham Moore, tried to take its cargo. A battle ensued and soon after Las Mercedes was blown to smithereens. Its 249 passengers and crew were swallowed by the Atlantic along with the silver and gold that would remain on the ocean floor until 2007.

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