TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – The playground legal principle “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is being put to the test in an international dispute over what could be the richest sunken treasure ever found: 17 tons of silver coins brought up from a centuries-old shipwreck.
A Florida treasure-hunting company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, found the wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic and argues that the age-old law of the high seas entitles the finders to most or all of the booty, said to be worth around $500 million.
But the government of Spain suspects the ship was Spanish and says it has never expressly abandoned any of its vessels lost at sea. The kingdom has made it clear that if the treasure does have some connection to Spain, it wants every last coin returned.
The case is being closely watched because there could be more disputes like it, now that sonar, remote-control submersible robots and deep-sea video are enabling treasure hunters like Odyssey to find ships that went to the bottom centuries ago and were written off as unrecoverable because no one could even imagine finding anything so far beneath the waves.
“The question is, just because you’re the first one out there to get it, should you get to keep it – especially if it belongs to someone else?” said James Delgado, director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University and a critic of commercial treasure hunters.
For now, the spoils – some 500,000 coins, enough to fill 552 plastic buckets – are in Odyssey’s possession, tucked away in a warehouse somewhere in Tampa.
Odyssey created a worldwide sensation with the announcement of the find in May but has so far declined to identify the wreck.