Black Swan Shipwreck Ordeal Comes to End

A 17-ton trove of silver coins recovered from a Spanish ship sunk by British warships in 1804 returns to Spain.

A fabulous sunken treasure recovered from a Spanish wreck in the Atlantic Ocean is flying back home from the United States, ending a five-year legal battle.

The treasure was put aboard two Spanish military C-130 planes. They took off Friday from a Florida Air Force base with 595,000 silver coins and other gold aboard. They are expected to land in Madrid's Torrejon Air Base after a 24-hour flight with two stops on the way - New Jersey and the Azores.

"Today a journey that began 200 years ago is finally ending. We are recovering a historical legacy and a treasure. This is not money. This is historical heritage," Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo, was reported as saying as the planes took off.

Consisting of 18th-century silver coins weighing more than 17 tons, hundreds of gold coins, worked gold and other artifacts, the treasure has been at the center of an acrimonious international legal battle ever since it was discovered in 2007 by underwater robots from Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida-based treasure-hunting company.

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Valued at as much as $500 million - the richest shipwreck haul in history - the trove was handled by Odyssey and shipped straight to the United States.

The company, which, according to earnings statements, spent $2.6 million to retrieve, transport, store and conserve the precious cargo, has been unable to remove the silver and gold coins from warehouses at the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation in Sarasota, Fla.

Immediately after the treasure was recovered, Spain filed a claim arguing that the treasure originated from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. The 36-gun Spanish frigate sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 with 200 people aboard following a battle with four British navy ships.

According to an international maritime law known as the doctrine of sovereign immunity, active-duty naval vessels on a noncommercial mission remain the property of the countries that commissioned them. Spain thus claimed the exclusive property of the wreck and its cargo.

SLIDE SHOW: Black Swan: Treasure Quest

Odyssey argued there was not enough evidence to prove the wreck, which they code-named "Black Swan," was the Mercedes and even if that were the case, the ship's last voyage, from Montevideo to Cadiz, was commercial in nature. The majority of coins onboard were owned by private merchants, not by Spain, Odyssey insisted.

After a five-year court battle, and staggering revelations from WikiLeaks documents, a U.S. federal judge established that the United States had no jurisdiction in the case and ordered the treasure returned to Spain by Friday.

For days, a team of Spanish numismatic experts examined the precious coins, overseeing their packing into the same white plastic containers in which the coins were brought to the U.S. in 2007.

The cargo planes took off with the treasure despite an emergency appeal made by Peru to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday.

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It was claimed that the gold and silver coins were mined, refined and minted in Peru while the country was part of the Spanish empire.

The Supreme Court did not say when or if it would respond. However, U.S. courts had previously rejected similar claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the sunken coins.

Spain has ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to ease its worrying national debt.

Instead, the coins will be divided and exhibited in several national museums.

Recently, Odyssey has struck a deal with the British Maritime Heritage Foundation to retrieve an even richer treasure from the depths of the English Channel.

Belonging to the legendary HMS Victory, a warship that sank in 1744 with more than 1,000 men and a secret cargo of gold coins, the shipwreck could produce the world's richest shipwreck trove, worth $1 billion.

Photo Credit:

18th-century coins on the ocean floor at the Black Swan site. Odyssey Marine Exploration.