The Supreme Court yesterday took up the issue of the ownership of sunken treasure recovered from the wreck of a Spanish galleon submerged off the Florida coast, but the court's puzzling ruling left the fate of $2.3 million worth of artifacts unclear.
The court's 5-to-4 decision yesterday held that a lower federal court had power to order Florida officials to return to Mel Fisher $2.3 million in treasure, including stacks of silver and gold coins, jewel-encrusted swords and daggers, silver forks and plates, and an ancient astrolabe.
But a plurality of four justices held that the court should not have decided the underlying dispute of who actually owns those artifacts, and Florida lawyers said that might mean the issue was not laid to rest. The legal question was whether the 11th Amendment, which prohibits federal courts from hearing suits against states, barred lower federal courts from ordering the treasure's return.
Yesterday's ruling was the latest chapter in the struggle among Fisher, the state of Florida and the U.S. government over who owns the treasure of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, lost on the ocean floor for nearly 350 years until Fisher, a chicken farmer turned treasure hunter recovered it in 1971.
The ensuing lawsuits were as stormy as the tropical hurricane that sank the Atocha on her way back to Spain in 1622 laden with more than 160 gold bullion pieces, 900 silver ingots and 250,000 silver coins--New World bounty worth an estimated $400 million.
Fisher had agreed to give Florida 25 percent of the salvaged treasure under the assumption that the galleon lay in Florida's waters. But the Supreme Court redrew that boundary in 1975, and lower federal courts held that Fisher owned all the treasure. Fisher asked Florida to return the artifacts he had given under the agreement.
Fisher's lawyer said yesterday that the remaining uncertainty over the $2.3 million in artifacts had prevented his client from selling any of the treasure to pay for the venture, which has cost $7 million.
The high court's ruling in Florida vs. Treasure Salvors may not have been the last legal word, however. Because the court did not send the case back for further proceedings, the lawsuit seems to have been suspended in a sort of legal limbo.
"We're not sure exactly what the court said," admitted Florida Assistant Attorney General Eric Taylor. Yesterday's decision, he said, "obviously reopens" the question of who owns the disputed artifacts.