MADRID (AFP) - – A Florida court has ruled that US treasure hunting firm, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., must return a priceless trove recovered from a 19th century ship to Spain, Spain's culture ministry said Wednesday.
"Judge Steven Merryday of the US district court of Tampa reaffirmed Spain's rights over the shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and all the objects which were illegally taken from it by Odyssey," it said in a statement.
In May 2007 the Tampa-based Odyssey announced it had found half a million silver coins and hundreds of gold objects from a ship they code-named the "Black Swan," which went down in 1804, in the Atlantic Ocean off the Strait of Gibraltar.
Spain immediately contested the company's claim to the wreck in a Florida court.
It argued that if the shipwreck was a Spanish military vessel -- instead of a private commercial ship -- or if it was located in Spanish waters, any treasure would belong to Spain.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, Merryday wrote that "the Mercedes is a naval vessel of Spain and that the wreck of this naval vessel, the vessels cargo and any human remains are the natural and legal patrimony of Spain."
Odyssey however can hold onto the property while it appeals the ruling, he said.
Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzales-Sinde welcomed the US court decision, calling it "crucial for the defence of Spain's historical heritage."
Odyssey said the treasure was found in "international waters in the Atlantic Ocean," but never gave an exact location citing security concerns. The company quickly flew the find to Florida.
This fueled Madrid's suspicions that the treasure rightfully belonged to Spain, and in September 2008 it provided evidence that it said proved that the wreck was the Mercedes, a Spanish warship.
Odyssey had argued that even though the coins were Spanish, that did not mean they were found on a Spanish ship.
The coins represent a wide range of dates, origins and varieties, according to the company.
The sinking of the Mercedes in 1804 led Spain to declare war on Britain and re-enter the Napoleonic Wars.
Odyssey said it would appeal the ruling. "We feel confident that the legal issues are clearly in our favor," Odyssey Marine said in a statement.
Odyssey CEO Greg Stemm said that the adverse ruling does not affect any of the company's current operations. The company, which focuses on salvaging deep-water shipwrecks, is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
"We have not been counting on any revenue from the `Black Swan' in any of our budgets, since it was clear that this case would go to appeal no matter which way the judge ruled," said Stemm in a statement.
Odyssey claims that even though the coins may have been found on a Spanish military ship, the vessel's mission at the time was commercial, and that most of the coins were owned by merchants "and were never owned by Spain."