Treasure may become court odyssey

Legal action over what may be the richest shipwreck find ever appears imminent.

Published May 29, 2007

Odyssey Marine Exploration fought rough seas to salvage a centuries-old shipwreck from the bottom of the Atlantic. Now the Tampa company faces a bruising court battle over who owns the treasure.

An attorney for the Spanish government said Monday that legal action is imminent over what may be the richest shipwreck find ever, an assortment of 500, 000 silver coins said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars aboard a ship code-named Black Swan.

James Goold, a maritime lawyer with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., said Odyssey's refusal to identify the ship, its cargo or its location has stymied efforts by Spain to determine whether it has a claim on the vessel. He said there's historical evidence to suggest that the British-owned Merchant Royal - a 17th century ship many experts believe to be the vessel that Odyssey found - was chartered by the King of Spain before its disappearance in 1641. Moreover, Spain does not trust Odyssey's claim that it found the ship in international waters.

"The situation is developing very rapidly, and legal action can be expected, " Goold said.

Reached Monday evening, Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm called the legal threat "absurd." He said his publicly traded company found the wreck well over 12 miles from any nation's coast - the very definition, he said, of international waters. He also said Odyssey will contact all likely claimants as soon as it conclusively determines the ship's identity. Representatives of the U.S. and British embassies in Spain recently conveyed that message to Spain's ministry of foreign affairs.

"If it belongs to Spain, that's fine, " Stemm said. "We get a salvage award no matter who it belongs to."

Odyssey and Spain have tussled before, although Stemm said they worked cooperatively in a failed attempt to bring a Spanish ship to St. Petersburg. The state of Andalucia once sent boats to intercept Odyssey workers who were searching for another shipwreck, the HMS Sussex. Stemm said Spain recently rejected Odyssey's claim that a boat it found is in fact the Sussex, even after British authorities affirmed the evidence.

Stemm also said that Goold may have a conflict of interest because he chairs a Key West not-for-profit called the RPM Nautical Foundation, which might compete with Odyssey for salvage permits.

Ultimately, lawyers, judges and diplomats will decide who is entitled to claim the Black Swan's riches, and in what proportions. The tangle of international and domestic laws is complex, however. In 2001, for example, Spain told the U.S. State Department that it will lay claim to any sunken vessel that was lost while in service to the kingdom of Spain or carrying Spanish cargo. It also said that anyone wishing to salvage those ships must first obtain permission.

Goold said he successfully represented Spain in a case against a company that began recovering objects from two Spanish navy frigates without authorization. A U.S. court forced the company to forfeit all of the proceeds to the Spanish government, he said.

Stemm said such claims are legally worthless, as are claims that territorial waters extend beyond 12 miles. "You can't unilaterally make international law, " he said.

When Odyssey disclosed its historic find earlier this month, the company became a global media sensation and its stock nearly doubled in a day. In the weeks since, Odyssey has gone to great lengths to conceal details about the shipwreck. The company even lowered the resolution on a globally-distributed photo of the coins.

Stemm defended the company's moves, saying it has taken all possible legal precautions. "At the end of the day, we always do the right thing."

Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.