Sunken treasure finally arrives in Spain

Story highlights

  • A treasure estimated worth half a billion dollars arrived in Spain
  • The coins had been the object of a legal battle in the United States
  • The company that found the treasure lost its claim in the courts
A treasure worth an estimated half billion dollars in gold and silver coins, recovered from a Spanish warship that sunk two centuries ago, arrived in Madrid Saturday, just weeks after U.S. courts ruled that Spain had rights to the loot, not the Florida deep-sea salvage company which found it on the ocean floor.
Two Spanish military cargo planes, which retrieved the nearly 594,000 coins in crates from a secretive warehouse in Florida, landed at the Torrejon military air base in Madrid just before 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET).
The two planes arrived at a U.S. military base in Florida earlier this week -- on the heels of a team of Spanish government experts who did an inventory of the treasure -- and departed on Friday for the overnight flight to Madrid.
That was after the Florida company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. had exhausted its legal appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined without comment Odyssey's motion for a hearing earlier this month.
"Spain has now been victorious at every level in the United States courts, from Tampa to Atlanta to Washington," said Jim Goold, who defended Spain's claim to the treasure. "I am pleased and proud for all of us."
Odyssey Marine Exploration made an emergency appeal to the high court in an attempt to block a lower court's order that it turn over the treasure to Spain.
The dispute goes back to 2007, when Odyssey announced it had found a 19th-century sunken ship off of Spain. The company claimed ownership of the coins and said it had flown them to a guarded location in the United States.
Spain 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 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 was hit in its powder magazine and exploded, according to the Spanish government's filing to the Florida court.
In 2009, the federal court in Tampa ruled in favor of Spain and the federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld the ruling last September. Last January 31, the appeals court denied an Odyssey motion, which Odyssey appealed to the Supreme Court.
Spain's Culture Minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, told CNN in Madrid earlier this month 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 at Spanish museums, and perhaps elsewhere.
Peru, too, has followed the fate of the coins, which 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 fabled "pieces of eight," some minted in 1803 in Lima, Peru, Spanish officials have said.
The treasure, which already has crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, by ship in 1804 and then by plane in 2007, has now arrived on the Spanish mainland for the first time.
A Spanish Defense Ministry official at the Torrejon base said the treasure will be turned over to Spain's paramilitary Civil Guard for safekeeping.
The Culture Ministry is expected to hold a news conference and possibly show off a portion of the coins in the coming days.