Court Orders Odyssey Marine to Return Black Swan Treasure to Spain

Thursday, February 2, 2012
A Spanish galleon.
The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has denied Odyssey Marine’s motion to stay a decision ordering the commercial salvor to return coins and objects to Spain.  The so-called treasures of the "Black Swan" (the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes) were taken from the sunken 19th century Spanish galleon, discovered by Odyssey in 2007 “lying at a depth of approximately 1100 meters, beyond the territorial waters or contiguous zone of any sovereign nation approximately 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar,” according to court records.

The case has persisted since April 9, 2007.  That is when Odyssey Marine filed a complaint in federal district court in Tampa, Florida under admiralty and maritime law (known as an admiralty in rem action).  The salvor argued that it should either own the shipwrecked vessel under the law of finds (a type of “finders keepers” claim) or it should be entitled to “a liberal salvage award” from the vessel under the law of salvage.  Odyssey lost the case, and the case now captioned as Odyssey Marine Exploration v. Kingdom of Spain et al. continues.

Last September, the federal circuit court of appeals upheld the lower district court’s decision that ordered Odyssey “to release the recovered res [i.e. the shipwreck materials] to the custody of Spain.”  Odyssey hoped to stay this decision as it appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The company argued in its December 2, 2011 petition to the circuit court that once it delivered materials to Spain the objects would not be returned to Odyssey if the salvor ultimately won the case in the highest court in the land.  That is because it is "Spain's position that it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Courts ....," according to the motion.  Odyssey also cited its belief that there are seven legal errors that remain to be challenged in the case.  The appellate court was unpersuaded, writing by hand the word “denied” on its final order issued Tuesday.

At stake for Odyssey is a haul reportedly worth $500 million.  For Spain, “[t]his sentence gives Spaniards back what was already theirs,” according to culture minister José Ignacio Wert who was quoted in The Daily Mail.

Hat tip to Gary Nurkin for forwarding The Daily Mail story.