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A Spanish treasure goes home

After many court battles, sunken ship’s contents are returned

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A gift of $500 million would seem like a timely windfall for cash-strapped Spain, but the Spanish economy won't be getting any of it.

The sum represents the estimated value of an ancient treasure recovered from a sunken Spanish ship by a U.S. deep-sea salvage company. After a long-running legal battle, Madrid's claim to this fortune in silver and gold coins was secured last week when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a long-shot Peruvian appeal to block return of the recovered cargo to Spain.

"We don't think of it as money; to us, it's part of our cultural heritage," said Guillermo Corral, cultural attache at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, the official involved in supervising its transport to Spain from Tampa, Fla., last weekend. "Spain has very strict laws protecting its patrimony, so none of the coins can be sold or melted down."

The coins, mostly minted between the mid-18th century and the early 19th, will be restored, and then most of them will be distributed to museums with maritime and numismatic interests, Mr. Corral said. The Spanish press reported Tuesday that more than 30 museums had applied. "You can put up several traveling exhibitions of good quality, one of which will very likely come to the United States," he said.

On Saturday, a triumphal motorcade of giant trucks rolled through the streets of Madrid, the Spanish capital, under heavy motorcycle escort, transporting the 595,000 or so coins to the Ministry of Culture, which happens to be located in a building that once was a bank and conveniently has a strongroom.

The specie, preserved in a watery solution in more than 600 buckets, left Tampa last Friday in two Spanish military C-130 Hercules transport planes. With such a heavy load, the planes had to make two fuel stops on the Atlantic crossing.

Traveling with the coins was Washington lawyer James Goold, who for the past five years has represented the kingdom of Spain in its lawsuit against the shipwreck exploration company Odyssey Marine Explorations for ownership of the treasure.

Mr. Goold, a member of the D.C. firm of Covington & Burling, told the Spanish newspaper ABC that his happiest moment was when Spanish officials legally took possession of the coins in Tampa. "Even now, I get emotional remembering it," he said.

"I deny that I'm going through postpartum depression," he quipped. "This is still a busy time."

The coins represented taxes and other cash transfers being carried to Spain from colonial Peru on board the Spanish navy ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, blown up by a British frigate in a naval battle off the coast of Portugal in 1804 when a shell hit its powder magazine.

Last September, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding earlier lower court decisions, ruled that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which gives embassy personnel diplomatic immunity, extended to the contents of a sunken vessel belonging to a foreign government. In a last bid to keep its discovery, Odyssey tried to take the case to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

Mr. Goold told Reuters news agency that the salvage company had been very secretive about the recovery. Odyssey had code-named its find "Black Swan" and claimed in court not to know the ship's real identity. But Spanish authorities, aware of the loss of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes in the same waters, knew better. They had collected through diplomatic and military connections enough information - including the fact that Odyssey had brought up a cannon known to have been on the Spanish ship - to file the suit.

Mr. Goold, himself a passionate underwater archaeologist, told Reuters that Spain also had argued that the shipwreck was essentially a marine graveyard that should not have been disturbed.

"You can't go around disturbing graveyards," as Mr. Corral put it.

Also making legal claims to the priceless find were Peru and descendants of some of the 280 souls who perished in the ship. The Peruvian claim was that because the gold and silver coins had come from Peru, that country was the rightful owner.

As for the descendants, Mr. Corral said records showed that the last compensation claims had been paid by the Spanish government in 1852.

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