Shipwreck Treasure Sparks Intrigue

The extraction of an estimated $500 million worth of coins from a shipwreck referred to as the “Black Swan” has caused a tidal wave of conflicting claims from both the American company which found the treasure, and the government of Spain.

The sunken riches were salvaged by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Tampa-based company which bills itself as “the world’s leader in the field of deep-ocean shipwreck exploration.”

Initial press reports, including this article from the BBC, cited the remarks of an expert who suggested the location of the shipwreck was “forty miles off Land’s End,” which is on the southwestern tip of England.

Yet in a press release issued in May, Odyssey Marine Exploration would go no further than to say that the wreck was found in the Atlantic Ocean, and that the coins were shipped to the United States through British Customs, on a plane from Gibraltar.

Spain Jumps Into The Fray

The Spanish Ministry of Culture contends that the treasure was either in Spanish territorial waters or was from a ship that once belonged to Spain. According to a May 30 Reuters story, Spain was so flustered by the treasure discovery that it filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court “seeking to block claims by Florida-based treasure hunters Odyssey Marine Exploration to any Spanish property recovered from shipwrecks.”

The Reuters story quoted a “lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida” as saying:

“The Kingdom of Spain has not abandoned its ownership and other rightsin sunken vessels of the Kingdom of Spain, in vessels sunk while in theservice of the Kingdom of Spain, and in cargo or other property of theKingdom of Spain on or in sunken vessels.”

A day after the Reuters story was published, Odyssey posted another press release on its Web site claiming that the company had spoken to the counsel for the Spanish Government, Jim Goold, and that the lawsuit did not, in fact, exist. Odyssey’s press release stated:

Odyssey’s counsel spoke to Jim Goold, the lawyer apparently representing Spain, and Goold confirmed in a conversation this morning that Spain has NOT filed a lawsuit against Odyssey, and that any media reports suggesting that a lawsuit was filed are erroneous.

This denial contradicted several other reports which had directly quoted Goold’s statements on the lawsuit, including an article from the BBC, which stated:

Jim Goold, of the law firm Covington & Burling, representing the Spanish government, told the BBC: “The lawsuit will challenge Odyssey Marine Explorers’ right to recover or possess any property of the Kingdom of Spain recovered from sunken ships.”

An injunction was subsequently filed in a court in Cadiz, Spain, which ordered the interception of two Odyssey crafts should they leave their port in Gibraltar, thereby reentering Spanish territorial waters. As reported by the BBC, Spanish Culture Minister Carmen Calvo stated that the Spanish Navy would aide in the interception if required.

The Plot Deepens

Discussion has circulated in the international media, including this article in the June 24 Times of London, over how the treasure would be divvied if indeed the Spanish government could prove that the ship belonged to Spain. If the ship belonged to Spain, Spain would retain all of the cargo. If not, Odyssey would be entitled to approximately 90%, or $450 million of the $500 million-worth of treasure.

In an unexpected twist, meanwhile, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of automobiles issued a statement that seemed to put a new perspective on the whole imbroglio.

On June 22, a press release from Volvo Car Corporation (posted on Odyssey’s Web site) stated that the entire ordeal had spawned from a promotion it had been staging in conjunction with the release of the Disney film “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” which Odyssey had facilitated by depositing a cache of gold off the coast of Spain for a treasure-seeking contest.

Volvo stated that Odyssey had coincidentally found the “Black Swan” elsewhere at the same time that the company had been placing the treasure for the Pirates of the Caribbean promotion. Linda Gangeri, national advertising manager for Volvo Cars of North America, stated in the press release:

“We thought sinking a real treasure chest, filled with $50,000 in gold doubloons and a key to a new Volvo, and creating a global treasure hunt for 22 markets was challenging. …But that was, quite literally, a drop in the ocean compared to the storm our attempted retrieval process has stirred up.”

It is not immediately apparent why Odyssey had refrained from offering this explanation at an earlier juncture. Odyssey had eluded to working with Disney in an earlier press release, although no link was made between the partnership and the recent controversies. Odyssey only stated:

We can confirm that Odyssey and the Disney organization have recently entered into a relationship on a number of projects, and that the two companies are in discussions relative to some new partnership opportunities.

It’s worth noting that Gibfocus, a news outlet in Gibraltar, reported that worry over the whole situation will only serve to reinforce a legacy many believe exists between Gibraltar and piracy in the British-held Mediterranean territory.

Ben Rothenberg is a summer 2007 international news intern for WPR. His last dispatch to the blog focused on the suicide of two political figures in Japan.