A US court has ordered controversial treasure hunting ship Odyssey Marine to return an estimated 500 million euro haul to Spain.

Spain’s culture ministry revealed that the court in Florida ruled that the objects – a mixture of coins and other treasure – was “illegally taken by Odyssey”.

Judge Steven Merryday has reaffirmed Spain’s rights over the shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and all the objects which were illegally taken from it.

The company had found more than half a million silver coins and hundreds of gold objects from a ship they code-named the “Black Swan,” in May, 2007.

“This is crucial for the defence of Spain’s historical heritage”

Spain immediately contested the treasure from the ship, which sunk in 1804 in the Straits of Gibraltar.

It argued that the shipwreck was a Spanish military vessel and was found in Spanish waters.

In his ruling the Judge confirmed that the Mercedes was a Spanish naval vessel and that any cargo is the “natural and legal patrimony of Spain.”

Odyssey however can hold onto the property while it appeals the ruling, he said.
Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzales-Sinde welcomed the US court decision, calling it “crucial for the defence of Spain’s historical heritage.”

Odyssey said the treasure was found in “international waters in the Atlantic Ocean,” but never gave an exact location citing security concerns. The company quickly flew the find to Florida out of Gibraltar.

This fueled Madrid’s suspicions that the treasure rightfully belonged to Spain, and in September 2008 it provided evidence that it said proved that the wreck was the Mercedes, a Spanish warship.

Odyssey had argued that even though the coins were Spanish, that did not mean they were found on a Spanish ship.

The coins represent a wide range of dates, origins and varieties, according to the company.

The sinking of the Mercedes in 1804 led Spain to declare war on Britain and re-enter the Napoleonic Wars.

Odyssey said it would appeal the ruling. The company, which focuses on salvaging deep-water shipwrecks, is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

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