Image: Coins from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes
A member of Spain's Culture Ministry's technical crew displays two of the 594,000 coins and other artifacts found in the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic in 1804.
updated 2/24/2012 1:37:21 PM ET 2012-02-24T18:37:21

A 17-ton haul of silver coins, lost for two centuries in the ocean's depths aboard a sunken Spanish ship, began its journey back to its home country Friday after the U.S. explorers who brought it to the surface lost their claim to ownership.

Two massive Spanish military cargo planes took off with 594,000 silver coins and other artifacts aboard.

"This is history. We bear witness to that fateful day 200 years ago," Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar, said. "This is not money. This is historical heritage."

Odyssey Marine Exploration made an international splash in 2007 when it discovered the wreck of the ship, believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal's coast. At the time, the coins were estimated to be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck haul in history.

The Spanish government requested a high-security operation for Friday's transfer, and key details arranged with U.S. authorities weren't disclosed.

Unknown  /  AP
White plastic buckets containing the 594,000 coins and other artifacts found in the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give Peru more time to argue that it is the treasure's rightful owner.

Peru says the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. The appeal was directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not indicate when he would respond.

U.S. courts had previously rejected claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the coins aboard the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.

"Peru is making the same arguments that have been rejected at every level of the U.S. courts," said James Goold, a Washington attorney who represents the Spanish government. "There's absolutely nothing new in it."

The head spokesman for Peru's embassy in Washington, Rodolfo Pereira, declined to comment Thursday.

Odyssey — which uses a remote-controlled submersible to explore the sea depths — had previously argued that as the finder it was entitled to all or most of the treasure. The Spanish government filed a claim in U.S. District Court soon after the coins were flown to Florida, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents.

Odyssey argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. And if it was, the company contended, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip, not a sovereign mission, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

Odyssey lost every round in federal courts. This month, a federal judge ordered the company to give Spain access to the treasure this week to ready it for transport. Odyssey said it would no longer oppose Spain's claims.

The company has blamed politics for the courts' decisions, since the U.S. government publicly backed Spain's efforts. In several projects since then, Odyssey has worked with the British government on efforts to salvage that nation's sunken ships, with agreements to share what it recovers.

The company has said in earnings statements that it has spent $2.6 million salvaging, transporting, storing and conserving the treasure. But it is not expected to receive any compensation from the Spanish government because Spain has maintained that the company should not have tried to salvage it in the first place.

The Spanish Culture Ministry recently said the coins are classified as national heritage and must stay inside that country, where they will be exhibited in museums. It ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to ease Spain's national debt in a country grappling with a 23 percent jobless rate and a stagnant economy.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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