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Treasure Hunting Company Learns 'Finders, Keepers' Not Always Binding

Odyssey Marine Exploration is an unusual type of public company. Its business is going out into the open seas and trying to find shipwrecked treasure, which it then tries to keep under some legal version of the "finders, keepers" doctrine.

In May 2007, Odyssey uncovered one of the most lucrative shipwrecks in history -- nearly $500 million worth of silver coins and artifacts discovered on a sunken 19th century ship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Alas, the treasure has turned out to be fool's gold for Odyssey, but a massive windfall for the government of Spain. On Feb. 24, after several years of litigation, the 17 tons of silver coins recovered from the ship were flown from the U.S. to Spain. The Associated Press reports that two Spanish military planes took off on Friday with "594,000 silver coins and other artifacts aboard, packed into the same white plastic buckets in which they were brought to the U.S. by Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in May 2007."

As discussed in this 2009 Am Law Daily article, the government of Spain immediately contested Odyssey's right to the treasure, claiming that Odyssey had discovered a 19th-century Spanish frigate called the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in the U.S., Spain alleged that Odyssey violated Spanish heritage laws when it took the coins. The AP reports that the Peruvian government also made a "long-shot" ownership claim to the loot because "the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire." Peru filed an emergency appeal seeking to block the treasure from being sent back to Spain but that appeal now appears to be moot given that the treasure has already landed in Spain

The AP reports that Odyssey fought Spain in the courts trying to keep the treasure but lost at every turn. Odyssey blames politics for the outcome, as the U.S. government publicly backed Spain in the dispute. Odyssey has already spent $2.6 million salvaging, transporting and storing the treasure, which it is not expected to recoup. Melinda J. MacConnel, vice president and general counsel for Odyssey, says that Spain is being "very short-sighted" here because "in the future no one will be incentivized to report underwater finds. Anything found with a potential Spanish interest will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay."

Posted by Bruce Carton on February 27, 2012 at 04:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)


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