Jun 5, 2007

Spain Sues Odyssey Marine

A couple weeks ago I discussed Odyssey Marine's discovery of what may have been the largest-ever shipwreck recovery. It seems now that Spain has decided to challenge Odyssey Marine's title to the salvaged treasure. Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris has some thoughts, speculating that "Spain would either have to pay salvage costs if they retain title, or if the wreck is deemed abandoned, then its 'finders/keepers.'"Here is an excerpt of the AP Story:

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- The Spanish government has filed claims in U.S. federal court over a shipwreck that a Florida firm found laden with Colonial-era treasure, an attorney said Thursday.

If the vessel was Spanish or was removed from that country's waters, any treasure would belong to Spain, said James Goold, an attorney representing the government.

"It's a very well established principle under Spanish, U.S. and international law that a government such as the kingdom of Spain has not abandoned its sunken ships or sunken property, and that a company like Odyssey Marine Exploration may not conduct recovery operations without authorization by the government," he said.

"The kingdom of Spain has not authorized any such operations by Odyssey, and by these legal actions it will see the return of any Spanish property Odyssey has recovered," Goold said of the claims filed Wednesday.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. CEO John Morris said in a statement Thursday that "such a move was anticipated by Odyssey and is considered normal in Admiralty cases."

The company has previously said Odyssey would notify all claimants once it conclusively determined the ship's identity. Odyssey said it was not found in Spanish territorial waters.

"If there is anything Spanish involved, they want to work with the Spanish government and be certain the Spanish government is completely satisfied with the result," said Allen Von Spiegelfeld, Odyssey's attorney in Tampa. "I don't think the rights of the Spanish government would have been threatened."

The company announced two weeks ago that it had discovered a shipwreck containing 500,000 gold and silver coins somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The Tampa-based company said the site was outside any country's territorial waters but would not give the exact location or name of the ship.

Odyssey has said that the ship was not in Spanish territorial waters and was not the HMS Sussex, a shipwreck that Odyssey recently got permission from the Spanish government to search for in the Strait of Gibraltar.

But Spain has called the new discovery suspicious and said the booty may have come from a wrecked Spanish galleon.

In Britain, the find generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641. Odyssey has not confirmed or denied these reports.

Assuming the wreck was found in international waters, I'm not sure Spain has a tenable claim here. This may just be a perfunctory admiralty action by the Spanish to make Odyssey prove that the wreck was outside Spanish waters, and that it was not a Spanish ship. It is an interesting case, and I'll continue to post information here as it becomes available.

Another interesting theme to all this is that it will be the colonial powers that have a potential claim here, either England or Spain if the wreck were discovered in their territorial waters. The new world civilizations who were stripped of the precious metal before it was sent back to Europe would of course have no claim whatsoever. On a moral sliding scale, this would seem to render Spain's claim a bit less sympathetic in my view.

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