US & Canada

Sunken treasure haul arrives in Spain from US

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Media captionA US federal judge recently ordered Odyssey to give Spain access to the treasure

A haul of gold and silver coins salvaged from a sunken Spanish galleon has arrived in Spain after five years of legal ownership wrangles.

US firm Odyssey Marine Exploration found the 17 tons of coins in a wreck off Portugal's Atlantic coast in 2007.

At the time, the treasure was estimated to be worth $500m (£316m).

But a US federal judge recently ordered Odyssey to give Spain access to the treasure, the last in a series of legal defeats for the salvage firm.

The coins arrived at an airbase at Torrejon de Ardoz, north of Madrid, on Saturday afternoon in two military transport planes.

On Friday, Spain's ambassador to the US had watched the planes take off at 12:30EST (17:30 GMT) from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.

"This is history. We bear witness to that fateful day 200 years ago," Ambassador Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar said. "This is not money. This is historical heritage."

Once the treasure is unloaded, it will be transported to an undisclosed location, according to local media reports.

The 594,000 coins and other artefacts are believed to have been recovered from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk by a British warship in 1804.

Business or empire?

Odyssey, based in the Florida city of Tampa, said they had found the wreck in international waters in 2007, and quickly flew the coins to Miami, where they claimed salvage rights.

However, once the Spanish government learnt of the haul, it began legal challenges against Odyssey in an effort to recover the coins.

Odyssey had argued in US federal court that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes, and even so, as it was operating as a commercial ship, Spain had no claim to the cargo.

International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers, unless they are formally abandoned.

Spain countered that it had never relinquished ownership of the ship's cargo, and the coins were part of the country's national heritage.

A judge first declared in 2009 that the US had no jurisdiction in the case and ordered the treasure to return to Spain.

Despite an ongoing battle with high unemployment and debt concerns, Spain's Culture Ministry has ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to pay off the country's national debt, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Instead the coins will be exhibited in Spanish museums.

Peru made an emergency appeal to the US Supreme Court on Thursday, stating its own claim on the coins on the basis that they were mined and minted in the country while it was part of the Spanish empire.

But that claim was turned down by Judge Clarence Thomas on Friday, AP reported.

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