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High court rejects stay in Spanish sunken treasure case

From Al Goodman, CNN
updated 7:43 PM EST, Thu February 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Odyssey's bid to hold on to gold and silver coins was set back
  • Justice Clarence Thomas declined the motion without comment
  • Spain has won U.S. court rulings to date

(CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear an emergency application for a stay filed by a Florida deep-sea salvage company that wanted to maintain possession of a half billion dollars worth of gold and silver coins until a final decision is made about who owns them.

"Spain has now been victorious at every level in the United States courts, from Tampa to Atlanta to Washington," said Jim Goold, who defended Spain's claim to the treasure. "I am pleased and proud for all of us."

Odyssey Marine Exploration had made an emergency appeal to the high court in an attempt to block a lower court's order last week that it turn over the treasure to Spain.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who has jurisdiction over applications from Florida, denied without comment the motion in Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. v. Kingdom of Spain.

The company has filed at least one another stay request with the justices.

Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey's vice president and general counsel, expressed disappointment, but said she recognized that the court "rarely grants" such motions. "How we proceed from here will depend on whether a mandate issues and what a subsequent order might look like, especially given the fact that the courts have determined they do not have jurisdiction in the case," she said in a statement.

Goold said it was unlikely that the Supreme Court would review the case. "The Supreme Court accepts 1% or less of such requests and today's decision makes a strong statement about their chances," he said.

The dispute goes back to 2007, when Odyssey announced it had found a 19th-century sunken ship off of Spain. The company claimed ownership of the coins and said it had flown them to a guarded location in the United States.

Spain filed suit in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, also claiming the treasure.

Spain says its navy warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was carrying the coins. The 34-gun frigate left Peru in 1804 and crossed the Atlantic to within a day's sail from Spain when British ships attacked the Spanish fleet.

In the ensuing Battle of Cape St. Mary, south of Portugal, the Mercedes was hit in its powder magazine and exploded, according to the Spanish government's filing to the Florida court.

In 2009, the federal court in Tampa ruled in favor of Spain and the federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld the ruling last September. Last week, the appeals court denied an Odyssey motion, which Odyssey appealed to the Supreme Court.

The appeals court is expected to send the case back to the court in Tampa, which would establish and supervise the procedures for sending the coins to Spain, Goold said last week.

Spain believes that most of the nearly 600,000 coins are currently in Florida, Goold said.

Spain's Culture Minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, told CNN in Madrid on Wednesday that the case was never really about the money.

"We're not going to use this money for purposes other than artistic exhibition, but this is something that enriches our material, artistic capital and it has to be appreciated as such," Wert said in an interview.

He said the coins would be exhibited at Spanish museums, and perhaps elsewhere.

Peru, too, has followed the fate of the coins, which came from Latin America when Peru was a Spanish colony.

"Formally, they haven't claimed anything, but we are completely open to consider the possibility of distributing some part of the treasure also among the Latin American museums," Wert said.

The treasure includes fabled "pieces of eight," some minted in 1803 in Lima, Peru, Spanish officials have said.

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