Shipwrecked silver begins voyage back to Spain
Published : Feb 26, 2012 - 10:17
Updated : Feb 26, 2012 - 10:17

A 17-ton haul of silver coins, lost for two centuries in the wreck of a sunken Spanish galleon, began its journey back to its home country on Friday after the deep-sea explorers who lifted it to the surface lost their claim to ownership.

Two Spanish military C-130 cargo planes took off after noon from a Florida Air Force base with 594,000 silver coins and other artifacts aboard. They were packed into the same white plastic buckets in which they were brought to the U.S. by Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in May 2007.

``These are emotional and moving moments for me and all my colleagues behind me,'' Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar, said Friday. He stood on the windy tarmac at MacDill Air Force base, flanked by an entourage of more than two dozen Spanish officials and others.

``History will make us who we are, and today we are witnessing a journey that started 200 years ago,'' he said. ``This is not money. This is historical heritage.''

The planes were expected to make two refueling stops and land about 24 hours later at one of two air force bases in Madrid in a high-security operation.

Odyssey made an international splash when it discovered the wreck, believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal's Atlantic coast near the Straits of Gibraltar. 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 Mercedes was believed to have had 200 people aboard when it was sunk in 1804.

Spain went ahead with transporting the treasure despite a last-ditch, longshot claim to the treasure by Peru.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give that nation more time to make arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner. But that appeal was denied Friday by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Peru had argued the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire.

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

Peru's ambassador to the United States, Harold Forsyth, said the nation would seek redress in Spain via diplomatic channels.

``The ship departed from the port of Callao (adjacent Lima) with a cargo of coins minted in Peru, extracted from Peruvian mines with arms and sweat of Peruvians,'' he said.

Peru did not gain its independence until 1824, but its lawyers have argued that it was more than a simple colony, being the local seat of the Spanish crown, when the treasure-laden ship was sunk two decades earlier.

Peruvian cultural authorities say their country's legal case would have been stronger if it had signed the 2001 U.N. Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which states that countries of origin have priority in deciding the fate of cultural artifacts found in shipwrecks.

Odyssey _ which uses a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths and bring the tiniest of items to the surface _ had previously argued that 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 back to Tampa, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents. A federal district court first ruled in 2009 that the U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction, and ordered the treasure returned.

Odyssey had argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, the company contended, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip _ not a sovereign mission _ at the time it sank, 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 trying to hold on to the treasure, as the Spanish government painted them as modern-day pirates plundering the nation's cultural heritage.

The company has blamed politics for the courts' decisions since the U.S. government publicly backed Spain's efforts to get the treasure returned. 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. Company officials said the ruling against them may lead to other deep-sea explorers refusing to share information about their claims with governments. They declined to comment further Friday.

Odyssey 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 for recovering it because the European nation has maintained that the company should not have tried to do so in the first place.

``I would expect that the companies would respect historical heritage and respect the law of the sea,'' Dezcallar de Mazar said. ``And the law of the sea states that no matter how (much) times goes by, a sunken man-of-war belongs to the flag.''

In Madrid, 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 one or more Spanish 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. (AP)


<관련 한글 기사>

30억원 써서 보물 건져냈더니 남 좋은 일만…

미국의 심해 보물 탐사 회사가 200여년 전 침몰한 스페인 군함에서 인양한 59만4천개의 은화(5억달러 상당)가 5년간의 소유 권 공방 끝에 24일(이하 현지시간) 스페인으로 향했다.

스페인 공군 소속 C-130 화물기 두 대는 이날 오후 미국 플로리다주의 한 공군 기지에서 17t에 달하는 은화와 다른 인양 물품을 싣고 이륙했다.

군 수송기들은 미국 뉴저지와 캐나다에 들러 연료를 채우는 등의 여정을 거쳐 26일 낮 12시께 마드리드 근처에 있는 공군기지에 도착한다.

이 은화 등의 보물은 1804년 10월 지브롤터 해협 인근 포르투갈 해상에서 영국 군에 의해 침몰한 것으로 추정되는 스페인 군함 '누에스트라 세뇨라 데 라 메르세데스'호에 실려 있던 것이다.

미국 탬파에 근거지를 둔 해저 보물 탐사 전문회사인 오디세이 마린 익스플로레 이션사가 2007년 5월 건져 올려 탬파로 옮겼다.

오디세이사는 원격 조종 로봇을 이용해 이 보물을 인양하는데 260만달러를 썼지만, 이후 오디세이사와 스페인 정부가 소유권을 두고 치열한 법정 다툼을 벌였다.

페루 정부도 이 은화들이 당시 스페인의 식민지였던 자국의 리마에서 채굴•정제 •주조된 것일 가능성이 있다며 분쟁에 끼어들었다.

페루 정부는 23일 연방 법원에서 소유권을 더 다툴 수 있게 보물 이관을 막아달 라며 긴급 상소했지만 클래런스 토머스 미국 연방 대법관은 24일 이를 각하했다.

이에 앞서 미국 탬파 지방법원의 마크 피조 판사는 지난 18일 스페인 정부가 보 관 및 관리비로 41만2천달러를 지급해야 한다는 오디세이사의 주장을 기각했다.

미국 연방법원도 누가 배를 발견했는지, 보물이 어디에 보관됐는지와 관계없이 미국의 조약은 원소유국의 재산으로 규정하고 있고, 페루에서 주조됐다고 하더라도 원소유국은 스페인이라고 판결한 바 있다.

한 푼의 보상도 받지 못하게 된 오디세이사는 앞으로 아무도 스페인의 수중 문화유산을 찾아내려 하지 않을 것이며 찾더라도 감추거나 녹여버리거나 이베이를 통해 팔아버릴 것이라고 주장했다.

한편, 스페인은 이 보물을 매각하지 않고 박물관에 전시할 예정인 것으로 알려졌다. (연합뉴스)