The last court battle over the Odyssey case was, comparatively, a minor skirmish, and it went mostly unnoticed.
Last October, the US-based treasure hunter paid the Spanish state $1 million (€717,000), according to the annual report that Odyssey Marine Exploration filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Wall Street.
In September 2001, after a protracted international legal battle, a US appeals court ruled that Odyssey had to return the 594,000 silver and gold coins it took in 2007 from a 19th-century Spanish shipwreck because the property is protected, among other things, by a 1902 US treaty that Washington signed with Madrid.
Once the case of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was resolved, Spain claimed $3.2 million (€2.3 million) in legal expenses from Odyssey. In September 2013, the Florida court ordered the treasure hunter to pay a third of that ($1.07 million, or €767,000). The Culture Minister on Tuesday confirmed that the money had been transferred to the Spanish treasury.
The case drew a huge amount of attention to the need to protect Spain’s underwater heritage.
“It served to create public awareness,” said Jesús García Calero, editor-in-chief at Abc newspaper and coordinator of a recent Madrid symposium on underwater archeology.
But not everyone was so optimistic. The writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the Alatriste series and one of the guest speakers, said that the Mercedes victory was an isolated case.
“It could happen again tomorrow. The minister cannot go and get his picture taken underwater next to the sunken ship, and there are no votes to be won from it. Until a Spanish child knows who Jorge Juan or Blas de Lezo were, nothing will change,” complained Pérez-Reverte, who was very critical of “the notable lack of culture among our political class.”
But the Defense and Culture ministries are preparing to familiarize Spaniards with the story of La Mercedes, a frigate that was sunk by an English ship on October 5, 1804 off the Portuguese coast of the Algarve, and forgotten about until two centuries later, when the Odyssey US marine exploration company found the wreck and extracted its valuable load of gold and silver coins.
Carlos León, technical director of the exhibition El último viaje de la fragata Mercedes (or, The last journey of the frigate Mercedes), will tell the story of “two injustices” and “one legal victory.”
“The first injustice was committed when the frigate was blown up, and the second in 2007, by traffickers in cultural assets, whom I prefer not to describe as treasure hunters because that sounds like a good thing. Odyssey lied from the beginning about almost everything,” he said.
“The coins must be viewed as cultural assets, not goods to be sold in the market,” argues Carmen Marcos, deputy director of the National Archeology Museum and one of the curators of the show. Marcos was also one of the specialists sent by Spain to Sarasota for the trial.
Odyssey returned 595,000 gold and silver pieces that had been coined in Potosí, Lima, Popayán and Santiago de Chile, and these were in turn deposited at the National Museum of Underwater Archeology (ARQUA) for restoration, analysis and conservation.
Ministry estimates from November 2012, which was the time that the shipment arrived, talked about 14.5 tons of silver and gold distributed among 212 gold coins, 309,184 silver coins and 265,157 more silver coins melted in blocks. At that point, the National Archeology Museum was already in possession of 5,138 coins.
A small portion of this treasure trove will go on display in Madrid, where exhibits will be distributed at the Archeology Museum and the Naval Museum. The latter center has also built a model replica of La Mercedes using materials and techniques from the 18th century, when the original was built in Havana.
“Research and dissemination of our underwater archeological heritage is an act of patriotism in the most noble sense of the term,” said Pérez-Reverte. “There is a great lack of knowledge about this historical reality in Spanish society. La Mercedes is not just a sunken ship; it is history, it is the 18th century, it is Castilian Spain...”