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Judge rules against Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. in treasure dispute
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo speaks to reporters about the so-called Odyssey treasure case in Madrid, Spain, 01 February 2011. Following the announcement that the US Supreme Court has ordered the Tampa-based company Odyssey to return 380 million euros worth of gold and silver coins discovered in 2007 on the shipwrecked Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, Garcia-Margallo said the judgement sets a legal precedent to which future treasure hunters would be bound. EPA/Juan Carlos Hidalgo.

By: Mitch Stacy, Associated Press

TAMPA (AP).- An attorney for the Spanish government said a federal judge's ruling Tuesday means Florida deep-sea explorers will have to start making plans to hand over 17 tons of silver coins and other treasure from a sunken 19th century galleon.

Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. found the treasure off the Portuguese coast in 2007 in the wreck of what is believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which was sunk by British warships in 1804.

Last year, a federal appeals court in Atlanta affirmed a Tampa judge's ruling that Odyssey must give the treasure back to Spain. The company then requested a stay of court proceedings as it continued its legal fight to keep the treasure.

In court documents, the exploration firm said a stay of the court proceedings is needed to prevent Spain from keeping the treasure as U.S. courts continue to consider the case. But in an order Tuesday, a federal judge in Atlanta denied Odyssey's motion for a stay.

James Goold, a Washington lawyer representing the Spanish government, said once the mandate is returned to the federal court in Tampa, the original order from the court will be reinstated. Goold said that means Odyssey will have to return the treasure to Spain within 10 days, although he expects another hearing in Tampa soon so he and Odyssey attorneys can again discuss the situation with a judge.

Odyssey said it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case, but Goold said the request doesn't stop the clock on the company being forced to hand over the treasure to Spain. Tuesday's decision, he said, "removes the latest effort by Odyssey to delay the inevitable."

"Odyssey, I believe, will have to explain how they are going to comply with the orders, how they are going to do it properly and in a timely fashion," Goold said.

Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey vice president and general counsel, declined to comment in an emailed statement because the court hadn't yet issued its mandate.

In Madrid, Spanish Culture Minister Jose Ignacio Wert said Tuesday's decision was a major victory in his country's bid to bring the treasure home.

"This verdict will give Spaniards back a treasure of incalculable historical value," he said in an interview on Spanish National Radio.

Wert said Spanish authorities are already making plans for how to carefully transport the treasure from Florida to Spain and inspect the coins after arrival. They plan to "put all the coins and objects in the hands of specialists for proper restoration and to prevent future damage," Wert said in the statement.

"After the restoration, we'll proceed to distribute the objects between collections of natural museums where they will be the subjects of study, research and exhibition," he said.

Odyssey made an international splash in 2007 when it recovered the coins and other artifacts from the depths using a remote-control underwater vehicle and brought the loot back to Tampa via Gibraltar. At the time, experts speculated the coins could be worth as much a $500 million. They are still in Odyssey's possession in an undisclosed location.

Almost immediately, the Spanish government filed a claim in federal court in Tampa claiming that it never relinquished ownership of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and its cargo.

Odyssey had argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip — not a sovereign mission — at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

The Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was sunk by British warships in the Atlantic while sailing back from South America with more than 200 people on board.

Goold has said it was no more appropriate for Odyssey to strip the wreck of coins to sell to collectors than it would be for someone to loot the remains of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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