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September 21, 2011
WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2011 —The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled today that the remains of a 19th Century Spanish warship and its cargo taken by an American treasure hunting company must be returned to Spain. Covington & Burling represented Spain in the dispute.
In a 53-page opinion, the court of appeals found that Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., a deep-ocean exploration and shipwreck recovery business, must turn over 594,000 coins and other artifacts that it recovered from a sunken Spanish Navy vessel named Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
Odyssey found the vessel in 2007 in international waters just west of the Straits of Gibraltar and immediately laid claim to its contents, sparking a tense international battle that involved Spain, Peru and 25 individuals, including people claiming to be descendants of individuals with cargo aboard the vessel.
The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was sailing to Spain on October 5, 1804, when it was intercepted by a British squadron intent on capturing the ship under orders from the King of England. A battle began and within minutes, the ship exploded, killing nearly everyone onboard and scattering its treasure across the sea.
The lengthy legal proceedings involved thousands of documents, affidavits from historians, archaeologists and coin experts based on historical Spanish documents, photographs from the underwater site and artifacts. On behalf of Spain, Covington contended that the Mercedes, as it is commonly called, was a warship of the Royal Navy of Spain and therefore subject to immunity from Odyssey’s claims.
“The decision is a complete victory for a principle that should never have been disputed - the so-called "treasure" that was taken by a U.S. company from a sunken warship of the Kingdom of Spain must be returned to Spain,” said Jim Goold, who led the Covington legal team with associates José Arvelo and Enrique Armijo. “The Spanish ship, the Navy Frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, was sunk in battle south of Portugal in 1804 and has a place in Spanish history that is comparable to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. The decision strongly affirms that the sunken vessels of Spain and other nations are important historical sites and national patrimony that are out of bounds for treasure hunters.”