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U.S. court backs Spain over $500M sea treasure

Story highlights

  • The treasure is 600,000 silver and gold coins
  • The coins went down with a Spanish warship sunk in battle with British ships in 1804
  • A Florida-based deep-sea salvage company recovered the coins in 2007
  • Spain filed suit in U.S. federal court to claim the treasure

Spain has won a major victory in its long court battle with a Florida-based deep-sea salvage company over rights to an estimated $500 million in silver and gold coins, officials said Wednesday.

The treasure was recovered in 2007 from a 19th century sunken ship off the Spanish coast.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Tuesday turned aside another motion from the U.S.-based company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, and Spanish officials said they now expect the coins -- nearly 600,000 of them -- to arrive in Spain soon.

"With the ruling by the appeals court, the process begins to recover all of the coins taken illegally" from the sunken ship, Spain's Culture Ministry said in a statement.

Odyssey, which can still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said in a statement, "Currently, no final order has been issued in the case and it would be premature to comment at this time."

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The battle royal began after Odyssey announced in 2007 it had found the sunken treasure. It quickly laid claim to the coins, put them in crates and said it flew them to a discreet, well-guarded location in the United States.

Spain soon filed suit in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, also claiming the treasure.

Spain says its navy warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was carrying the coins. The Mercedes, a 34-gun frigate, left Peru in 1804 and crossed the Atlantic to within a day's sail from Spain when British ships attacked the Spanish fleet.

In the ensuing Battle of Cape St. Mary, south of Portugal, the Mercedes exploded after being hit in its power magazine, according to the Spanish government's filing to the Florida court.

The federal court in Tampa in 2009 ruled in favor of Spain's claim to the treasure, but Odyssey took the case to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, which ruled last September to uphold the lower court's ruling.

At the end of that 53-page ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote, "For the foregoing reasons, the district court did not err when it ordered Odyssey to release the recovered" items to the custody of Spain, according to a copy of the order viewed by CNN.

Since then, Odyssey has filed various motions at the appeals court to overturn or delay the ruling, said James Goold, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who is representing Spain in the case.

But on Tuesday, the appeals court denied an Odyssey motion, the court's chief deputy clerk, Amy Nerenberg, told CNN by phone from Atlanta.

Goold, who spoke to CNN by phone from Washington, said it appears that Odyssey's only possible appeal now would be to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court agrees to hear only a tiny portion of the cases presented to it.

The appeals court is expected to send the case in the coming days back to the federal court in Tampa, which would establish and supervise the procedures for sending the coins to Spain, Goold said.

Spain believes that the main part of the nearly 600,000 coins are currently in Florida, Goold said.

Spain's Culture Minister, Jose Ignaico Wert, told CNN in Madrid on Wednesday that the case was never really about the money.

"We're not going to use this money for purposes other than artistic exhibition, but this is something that enriches our material, artistic capital and it has to be appreciated as such," Wert said in an interview.

He said the coins would be exhibited in Spanish museums.

Peru has also followed this case. The silver and gold came from Latin America when Peru was a Spanish colony.

"Formally, they haven't claimed anything, but we are completely open to consider the possibility of distributing some part of the treasure also among the Latin American museums," Wert said.

The treasure includes a vast trove of coins, included fabled "pieces of eight," some minted in 1803 in Lima, Peru, Spanish officials said at a 2008 news conference.

The treasure already has crossed the Atlantic ocean twice -- by ship in 1804 and then by plane in the other direction just a few years ago. Spanish officials hope it might finally arrive now for the first time on the Spanish mainland.