A US appeals court has ruled that Odyssey Marine Exploration must return the controversial ‘Black Swan’ treasure to Spain. The judgement upholds a prior ruling from a lower court but Odyssey said it would challenge the decision.
The company found the wreck in international waters in the Atlantic in 2007 and recovered 500,000 silver coins and hundreds of gold artefacts, the largest undersea treasure ever found. But Spain said the haul came from the wreck of the Spanish warship ‘Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes’ and that the site was subject to sovereign immunity.
When Odyssey flew the treasure to Florida from Gibraltar, a legal row was unleashed and for three years lawyers have been battling it out in the US courts.
Odyssey argued that the identity of the wreck had not been confirmed and that even if it was the Mercedes, the galleon was on a commercial voyage when it was sunk by the English navy in 1804.
In the event the company lost its case, twice. The appeals court this week upheld the ruling of a lower court and said the ship belonged to Spain because it was a Spanish warship.
“The district court did not err when it ordered Odyssey to release” the property to Spain, the US Court of Appeals in Atlanta said.
Odyssey said it would ask for the case to be re-heard before a full panel of 11 appeal court judges, as opposed to a panel of three as in this last case.
“We are certainly disappointed by the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling,” said Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey’s Vice President and General Counsel.
“We believe the US Constitution and all other applicable laws give jurisdiction to the US courts to determine the rights of Odyssey, Spain and all other claimants in this case. Furthermore, we believe this ruling contradicts other Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court opinions.”
Odyssey shares plummeted on the news and closed at $2.16 on Wednesday, down 33% on the previous day’s trading. But the company insisted the decision would not have a long-term impact on its business.
“While we were surprised by the ruling and are obviously not pleased with the opinion, there is no near-term economic impact on the company and our day-to-day business operations,” said Mark Gordon, Odyssey President and chief operating officer.
“Since the original adverse ruling in the ‘Black Swan’ case, we have developed numerous shipwreck projects and opportunities to move the company forward.”
“We have been successful in working with other governments on shipwreck projects that determine a salvage award in advance and we’ve had some very promising results on several recent projects which we expect to confirm very soon”.