Will Finders Be Keepers of Salvaged Treasure?

Aladar Nesser, of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations, stands near the firm's main salvage vessel in Gibraltar, where Spain has effectively stranded it.
Aladar Nesser, of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations, stands near the firm's main salvage vessel in Gibraltar, where Spain has effectively stranded it. (By John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 27, 2007

GIBRALTAR -- Returning 200 years ago from the New World to a Europe engulfed by the Napoleonic wars, Spanish Rear Adm. Don José Bustamente led a fleet of four frigates to a tragic homecoming. South of Portugal's Cape St. Mary, British warships spotted the Spaniards in October 1804 and ordered them to change course and sail for England. Bustamente refused, a battle erupted, and Spain's 36-gun Nuestra Se�ora de las Mercedes exploded and sank, "breaking like an egg, dumping her yolk into the deep," according to a Spanish account.

The ship took with it more than a million silver dollars freshly minted in Spain's American colonies, documents of the time suggest. The lost booty became the stuff of legend, one of the world's great sunken treasures.

This spring, modern technology caught up with sea-hunting lore when a U.S.-based salvage company, Odyssey Marine Explorations, announced that it had found a 17-ton hoard of silver and gold artifacts, including about 500,000 coins, at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Estimated value: $500 million.

But Odyssey, citing a need to keep looters at bay, isn't saying where it found the wreck, except that it was in international waters in the Atlantic, and claims to be unsure what ship it has found. It has given the wreck the code name Black Swan. But people familiar with the search say the evidence points to the Nuestra Se�ora de las Mercedes.

Odyssey's secrecy has touched off a three-month international legal battle. Spanish officials, convinced that the loot could be Spain's, filed suit in the United States to force disclosure of the wreck's name and location, block future recovery efforts and claim what has already been hauled up.

The Spanish coast guard has effectively barricaded Odyssey's main salvage vessel, the 251-foot Odyssey Explorer, in the port of Britain's overseas territory of Gibraltar, by threatening to seize it if it ventures out.

The fight renews a dispute between archaeologists and commercial salvors over rights to historic wrecks, a quarrel that is growing as new search technology and submersible robots bring to light more graves of ancient ships. It has raised old tensions between Spain on one side and Gibraltar and its mother country, Britain, on the other. And it has pitted a small, Tampa-based U.S. company, which essentially argues that finders are keepers, against Spain, which says it has a right to protect its national heritage.

The next battle over the ship will be fought not on the high seas but under arcane maritime laws in a federal courtroom in Tampa, the city to which Odyssey quietly flew the salvaged treasure before announcing its recovery in May.

In interviews in Gibraltar, Odyssey Explorer crew members described their methodical search for the wreck. First, the company's main survey ship, Ocean Alert, spent weeks at sea towing a sonar device back and forth, at 5 mph, 24 hours a day, producing picture-quality images of the ocean bottom -- a tedious process known as "mowing the lawn."

Company experts on the Odyssey read the digital printouts, identified anomalies on the ocean floor, then returned in the Ocean Explorer with a deep-sea robot called Zeus. Controlled from the surface, Zeus deploys an array of brilliant strobe lights and cameras as it delicately pokes through debris on the bottom. Its operators say the 8.5-ton robot can pick up an egg without breaking it.

Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey, said the company conducts more thorough, archaeologically sensitive excavations of deep-sea sites than any organization in the world. But at the same time, he said, they are in business to find treasure, and the Black Swan was no fluke.

"Shipwrecks are a resource like any other resource, and every other resource -- scientific, cultural or otherwise, whether it's coins, whether it's stamps, whether it's antiques -- it's all owned, bought, sold and traded all the time," Stemm said.

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