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Video: Battle over buried booty

By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/24/2009 10:20:53 AM ET 2009-03-24T14:20:53

If he’s a pirate who’s made off with a half-billion-dollar booty haul, as Spain says he is, Greg Stemm didn’t look the part. Sporting a closely trimmed gray beard and wearing a sport coat with a black shirt and matching slacks, he never once said “Arrrr” or “matey.” He didn’t even have an eye patch or a parrot perched on his tweed-upholstered shoulder.

But what Stemm, the CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, does have in a warehouse somewhere in Florida is a haul of hundreds of thousands of coins — gold pieces of eight and silver coins — that the Spanish government says belongs to the people of Spain. A U.S. District Court judge who has been hearing arguments in the case since last year is expected to rule soon on who is the rightful owner of what is reported to be the largest treasure ever recovered from the deep.

In an appearance Tuesday on TODAY, Stemm told Ann Curry that his company has already suggested to the court and Spain what it feels is a reasonable solution: “We suggested, ‘You know what? Let’s do a split here. You should have all the cultural artifacts.’ We said, if this is a Spanish shipwreck, we think that the cultural artifacts should go to Spain. We just think we should be properly rewarded for spending the money, doing great archaeology.”

Stemm wouldn’t say exactly what it cost to salvage the treasure. “It cost millions and millions of dollars to do this work,” is all he would tell Curry.

Sunken treasure
Spain has another idea about who should get what. The treasure was being carried from Peru to Spain by a Spanish warship, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, it claims, and was sunk in 1804 by the British fleet. Some 250 sailors lost their lives, with just 40 survivors, the government says.

“The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.

International law holds that naval vessels belong in perpetuity to the countries that owned them. Merchant vessels, on the other hand, are fair game for treasure hunters.

Image: Odyssey
TODAY
Odyssey Marine Exploration found the $500 million trove off the coast of Portugal in 2007.
Odyssey, a publicly held company that is a leader in deep-sea archaeology and treasure recovery, found the vast trove on a 2007 expedition in what it says are international waters off Portugal and the Straits of Gibraltar. The coins were spread over an area the size of several football fields at the bottom of the ocean.

After filling a chartered Boeing 757 with the coins and shipping them to Florida, Odyssey returned to the area to further investigate the site. There they were boarded by a Spanish warship, and the ship and crew were held for several days in a Spanish port.

Who gets the treasure?
Stemm concedes that the treasure may have been that carried by the Mercedes, but said that the identity of the vessel has not been established. One difficulty in doing that is that the Mercedes was hit in its powder magazine during the battle and blew up, leaving little actual wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

Even if it was the Mercedes, Stemm said, that still does not automatically mean that Spain has sole claim to the treasure. Odyssey has argued in court that the Mercedes was carrying the treasure under contract with the merchants who owned it, and as such was acting as a merchant ship and not a warship.

“The Mercedes, if it was the Mercedes, was carrying a merchant cargo,” Stemm said. “While governments can take a sovereign immune warship and say that nobody can salvage it, they can’t say that you can’t salvage goods on behalf of merchants. In fact, we have the descendants of a lot of the merchants that had goods aboard the Mercedes that have come into court and said, ‘We think Odyssey should salvage these goods for us.’ ”

Image: Greg Stemm
TODAY
Greg Stemm, CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, disputes Spain’s claim to the treasure.
“And remember, there is not even a shipwreck there,” Stemm added. “This is like several football fields of just coins, scattered out over the bottom.”

Stemm says that the original expedition was to an area where his company believed a number of ships had sunk over the years. He said Odyssey notified the Spanish government of its intentions to search the area.

“When we went out to look in this general area, we thought there might be some Spanish shipwrecks,” he told Curry. “We actually invited the Spanish government to send archaeologists along. They just never got back to us.”

Goold has told other news outlets that Spain did respond to the invitation, telling Stemm, “Sunken ships are cultural heritage. Spain does not do commercial deals. It's national patrimony.”

The discovery of the treasure, its recovery and the subsequent battle with Spain will be featured at 10 p.m. (ET) on Thursday, April 2, on the Discovery Channel’s “Treasure Quest.”

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