Miami – After nearly five years of legal battles, Spain is to learn this week exactly when and how it will take possession of $500 million in gold and silver coins a Florida firm salvaged from the bottom of the Atlantic in May 2007.
U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo, who concluded more than two years ago that the treasure rightfully belongs to Spain, summoned the attorneys for Madrid and Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. to a hearing Friday where the details of the handover will be hammered out.
Odyssey must deliver the coins within 10 days, Pizzo said.
Hoping to avert any snags with the transfer, Spain's counsel filed a motion with the federal court in Tampa highlighting possible problems and suggesting solutions.
The motion, which Efe saw, raises the issue of who will pay the storage, shipping and handling costs associated with the handover of the treasure.
Odyssey has indicated that if ordered to turn over the coins, its only obligation is to allow Spanish authorities to remove the hoard from the warehouse where it has sat since May 2007, the motion says.
The company's position implies that once told to deliver the treasure, Odyssey will no longer have a duty to safeguard it, according to the brief, which seeks to have Spain assume full control of the handover process.
Madrid's counsel also argues that because Odyssey salvaged the coins and shipped them back to the United States "without authorization," the firm should be responsible for "reasonable costs" of returning the cargo to Spain.
Another area of concern is the small portion of the treasure that Odyssey left in Gibraltar. Spain wants Pizzo to explicitly include those items in his order.
In December 2009, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday upheld Pizzo's initial finding that Spain was the rightful owner of the treasure Odyssey salvaged from waters off Portugal where the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish navy frigate, was destroyed in battle in 1804.
Within days of recovering the $500 million in coins, Odyssey took the loot to Gibraltar and loaded it onto a chartered Boeing-757 for transport back to the United States.
The treasure remains at a secret location in Florida, but Spanish officials have been allowed to conduct periodic inspections to verify that the cargo is intact.
Madrid says the treasure came from the Mercedes and that the vessel and its contents rightfully belong to Spain under the principle of sovereign immunity.
Odyssey, however, contends that contemporaneous Spanish diplomatic communications show the Mercedes was on a commercial mission at the time of her sinking, invalidating Madrid's sovereign immunity claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected last Thursday a motion from Odyssey seeking an injunction against the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' order to turn over the treasure.
Odyssey filed the brief with the Supreme Court days after the 11th Circuit rejected the Tampa-based company's motion to stay the same court's November decision ordering the firm to turn over the coins.
The treasure-hunting firm sought an emergency injunction that would give it time to submit a more detailed brief asking the Supreme Court to requisition the case file from the Tampa trial court for review.