The playground legal principle "Finders keepers, losers weepers" is being put to the test in an international dispute over what could be the richest sunken treasure ever found: 17 tons of silver coins brought up from a centuries-old shipwreck.
A Florida treasure-hunting company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, found the wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic and argues that the age-old law of the high seas entitles the finders to most or all of the booty, said to be worth around $500 million.
But the government of Spain suspects the ship was Spanish and says it has never expressly abandoned any of its vessels lost at sea. The kingdom has made it clear that if the treasure does have some connection to Spain, it wants every last coin returned.
The case is being closely watched because there could be more disputes like it, now that sonar, remote-control submersible robots and deep-sea video are enabling treasure hunters like Odyssey to find ships that went to the bottom centuries ago and were written off as unrecoverable because no could even imagine finding anything so far beneath the waves.
"The question is, just because you're the first one out there to get it, should you get to keep it — especially if it belongs to someone else?" said James Delgado, director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University and a critic of commercial treasure hunters.
For now, the spoils — some 500,000 coins, enough to fill 552 plastic buckets — is in Odyssey's possession, tucked away in a warehouse somewhere in Tampa.
Odyssey created a worldwide sensation with the announcement of the find in May but has so far declined to identify the wreck, its location (except to say it was found in international waters) or even what kind of coins were recovered, for fear of plunderers. Instead, the shipwreck was given a code name: Black Swan.
Spain gets aggressive
Soon after the discovery was announced, Spain's Washington-based attorney, James Goold, went to federal court in Tampa and slapped claims on three Atlantic wreck sites to which Odyssey had been granted exclusive salvage rights under maritime law.
Spain temporarily seized the company's ships last summer, and the Spanish media have portrayed the Americans as buccaneers plundering the nation's cultural heritage.
On June 6, El Pais, Spain's biggest newspaper, ran an editorial headlined "Pirates of the 21st Century."
"Almost as if were back to the times of corsairs and freebooters, the new pirates of this century continue to besiege our galleons despite the fact they have been lying at the bottom of the seas for centuries immersed in an eternal sleep," it said. "How is Spain to defend itself against such a violation of its archaeological and historic patrimony?"
The ship is widely believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by a British warship off Portugal in October 1804. That theory is supported by an export document in the court file indicating that Odyssey raised the coins from a site 180 nautical miles west of the Strait of Gibraltar.
Next hearing set for March
Earlier this month, a federal magistrate ruled that Odyssey must hand over details of the Black Swan wreck, but that Goold must keep the information confidential. Another hearing is scheduled for March.
Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm said that even if Spain or some other party can prove a claim to the cargo, maritime law dictates that Odyssey be awarded a majority of the haul.
Goold said that won't happen unless Odyssey can prove that Spain expressly abandoned the shipwreck, which he says is not the case. Goold pointed to a previous case he argued in which treasure hunters who salvaged two Spanish ships off the coast of Virginia were forced by a federal appeals court in 2000 to relinquish rights to the 100 coins and other salvaged artifacts to Spain. The Spanish government eventually agreed to have the items displayed at a Virginia museum.
"The established principles regarding sunken ships in which the kingdom of Spain has an interest are that the treasure hunter has no right to salvage them, anything that is recovered has to be returned to Spanish custody and that there is no compensation," Goold said.
Disney signs on
The Black Swan discovery was timely for Odyssey, whose first big strike was the discovery in 2003 of a Civil War-era steamer off the Georgia coast that yielded 51,000 gold coins and other artifacts valued at around $70 million. Odyssey reported making around $38 million from the haul so far.
But Odyssey, the only publicly traded company of its kind, has posted losses over the past three years as it used its expensive high-tech equipment to scour the high seas for the next mother lode.
The company signed a promotional agreement with Disney last year and has attracted millions in investment from some of the country's biggest financial institutions.
"We have said all along that the legal issues with shipwrecks are complicated and it may take awhile to work them out," Stemm said.