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Shipwrecked silver begins voyage back to Spain

By Mitch Stacy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:15 p.m. MST

Armed US Air Force personal guard two Spanish military C-130 aircraft with 17 tons of silver other artifacts wait for departure at MacDill Air Force Base for a flight bound for Spain on Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. The 594,000 silver coins, and other artifacts, were salvaged from a 19th century Spanish treasure galleon by Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007 setting off a 5 year-long legal battle in federal district court ending in a recent ruling returning the treasure to Spain.

Scott Iskowitz, Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. — A 17-ton haul of silver coins, lost for two centuries in the wreck of a sunken Spanish galleon, began its journey back to its home country on Friday after the deep-sea explorers who lifted it to the surface lost their claim to ownership.

Two massive cargo planes — Spanish military C-130s — took off just after noon from a Florida Air Force base with 594,000 silver coins and other artifacts aboard. They were packed into the same white plastic buckets in which they were brought to the U.S. by Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in May 2007.

"These are emotional and moving moments for me and all my colleagues behind me," Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar, said Friday. He stood on the windy tarmac at MacDill Air Force base behind the hulking gray planes, flanked by an entourage of more than two dozen Spanish officials and others.

"History will make us who we are, and today we are witnessing a journey that started 200 years ago," he said. "This is not money. This is historical heritage."

The C-130s lifted off into a clear sky minutes apart from a MacDill runway as a bank of news cameras and a group of reporters observed from the tarmac. Inside, the buckets of coins were secured to pallets with plastic wrap and strapped into the rear cargo holds. Before their departure, the planes were guarded by armed American service members.

The planes were set to land in about 22 to 24 hours at one of two air force bases in Madrid, and were set to make two refueling stops during the high-security operation, the ambassador said.

Odyssey made an international splash when it discovered the wreck, believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, off Portugal's Atlantic coast near the Straits of Gibraltar. At the time, the coins were estimated to be worth as much as $500 million to collectors, which would have made it the richest shipwreck haul in history.

The Mercedes was believed to have had 200 people aboard when it was sunk.

Spain went ahead with transporting the treasure despite a last-ditch, longshot claim to the treasure by Peru.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give that nation more time to make arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner. But that appeal was denied Friday by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Peru had argued the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire.

U.S. courts had previously rejected claims by descendants of the Peruvian merchants who had owned the coins aboard the Mercedes.

Odyssey — which uses a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths and bring the tiniest of items to the surface — had previously argued that as the finder it was entitled to all or most of the treasure. The Spanish government filed a claim in U.S. District Court soon after the coins were flown back to Tampa, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents. A federal district court first ruled in 2009 that the U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction, and ordered the treasure returned.

Odyssey had argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, the company contended, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip — not a sovereign mission — at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

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