treasure stirs international booty battle
By Mike Celizic
decide who owns $500 million haul found off
coast of Portugal
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.
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
“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,
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.
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
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
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.”