Spain puts HK$3b of shipwreck silver on display after battle in US courts

HK$3.7b trove goes on show after long battle with treasure hunters in US courts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 9:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2014, 3:47am


Spain has proudly put on show tens of thousands of silver coins from a 19th-century shipwreck that it won back in court from US treasure hunters.

The country's soon-to-be king, Felipe, and future queen Letizia launched the exhibition in Madrid celebrating the return of the sunken treasure to Spain.

They viewed treasures and documents that tell the story of how British warships blew up the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in 1804, sending its precious cargo to the bottom of the sea.

The highlight of the show, in the basement of Madrid's recently reopened National Archaeological Museum, is a glass case containing heaps of more than 30,000 tarnished silver coins.

The cargo came to Spain in 2012 after a five-year legal battle with Odyssey, the US company that hauled it up two centuries after it sank.

"It's emotional," said James Goold, a US lawyer who fought Spain's case in the courts. "To get it back to Spain says to me: Mission accomplished."

On October 5, 1804, the Mercedes was nearing the coast of Spain on its way from Peru, part of the Spanish empire at the time. British ships thought the Mercedes was carrying treasure bound for Napoleon's coffers in France. They fired cannons at the Mercedes, blowing up its powder kegs and sinking it - a moment captured in a contemporary oil painting in the exhibition. In 2007, deep-sea search specialists Odyssey Marine Exploration found the wreck at a depth of 518 metres in the Atlantic.

Spanish authorities said at the time that the trove was worth at least €350 million (HK$3.7 billion) overall. It is thought to be the most valuable sunken treasure discovery in history.

Odyssey challenged Spain's sovereign claim to the cargo and said the wreck lay in international waters. Peru and descendants of the treasure's original owners also claimed it.

But a judge in Florida ruled in March 2012 that the trove belonged to Spain. The US Supreme Court turned down a final appeal by Odyssey in May 2012.

The 30,000 coins on show in Madrid are just a fraction of the estimated 580,000 found in the wreck.