Who Owns Buried Treasure?

Peering at the live video feed from an underwater camera, the crew of the Odyssey Explorer couldn't believe what they saw: a blanket of coins, strewn across an area the size of six football fields, 1,100 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The bounty—594,000 silver and gold coins—represents one of the largest treasure hauls recovered to date. But who owns it? Two years later, a U.S. federal court is still trying to figure it out.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, which probes the seas for sunken treasure ships, says it's theirs. In March 2007, the Florida-based company discovered and salvaged the shipwreck off the coast of Portugal using remote-controlled submarines. It assessed the haul's value at about $500 million. But when the company filed a salvage claim in Tampa, the Spanish government objected, arguing that the loot came from its Navy ship the Mercedes, which was carrying coins from South America to southern Spain in 1804 when it sank during a battle with British warships.

On June 3, a U.S. judge agreed that the ship was the Mercedes, based on its location and the artifacts found, and recommended that Odyssey return the treasure to Spain. A district court is reviewing the case and is expected to issue a verdict by December. David Bederman, an Odyssey director and international-law professor at Emory University, maintains it's not clear that the ship was the Mercedes and, regardless, Spain shouldn't get all the treasure. "Between 75 and 85 percent of the cargo on the Mercedes was privately owned," he says. "So how can Spain claim property that was never theirs?"

The case could have lasting repercussions for the shipwreck-salvage industry. The U.N. estimates that there are some 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floor. If the ruling favors Spain, it will be much harder for companies like Odyssey to conduct salvage operations, which are funded mainly by investors drawn by images of gold doubloons and a share of the haul. "Nobody is going to put the millions of dollars required to run a salvage operation into a wreck they know will be taken from them," a spokesperson for the shipwreck-hunting company Mel Fisher's Treasures wrote in an e-mail.

Some think that would be a good thing. For decades marine archeologists have argued that salvage firms, which operate largely in secret, are concerned only with riches, not history or science. The shipwreck hunters respond that universities and governments lack the resources to explore these wrecks, which are threatened by pipelines, fishing gear, and corrosion. A decision in favor of Spain "will be an important legal tool to protect countries' rights regarding underwater heritage against commercial interests," said Rafael Azuar, the director of Spain's National Museum of Underwater Archeology. Not to mention a windfall of historic riches for Spain.