Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We want our "pieces of eight" back

A Spanish warship forced a US treasure hunting vessel back into port at gunpoint yesterday as it tried to leave Gibraltar in the latest episode in a battle over what is claimed to be the world's largest recovery of treasure from the sea.

The Odyssey Explorer, a 250ft salvage vessel, was trying to leave Gibraltar, where it had been effectively blockaded for three months after Spain claimed a share of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver coins it had recovered. After setting sail, it was approached by a Spanish navy gunboat and civil guard patrol ship once it passed the three-mile "buffer zone" that surrounds Gibraltar and forced to turn round and head for the Spanish port of Algeciras.

There is debate over the value of the coins that Odyssey has recovered. In May the company valued the 500,000 coins they had found at $2.5m (around $5 per coin), but in a press release put out in June, they said the coins may be worth $500m, or $1,000 per coin. Odyssey said it was not responsible for the higher valuation, based on calculations by an independent numismatist. But they did publicise the higher figure.

Spanish media reports suggest the boat from which the coins were recovered is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 after a battle with British warships. Down with it went more than 1m silver coins, plundered from Spain's American colonies. The treasure has entered into Spanish lore as the world's greatest sunken booty and the idea that it might have been whisked away has incensed politicians and journalists.

Odyssey describes its work as "commercial archaeology" and says that, as the treasure was found in international waters, it should keep 90% of the proceeds. Spain's lawyer, James Goold, counters that "Spain has not abandoned its sunken property and it does not permit unauthorised salvage".

Just give them back and we'll say no more about it.

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