Precious Cargo Recovered From 200-Year-Old Shipwreck Revealed for the First Time

Spanish officials put on display for the first time Friday a tiny sampling of the 16 tons of treasure – including more than a half million silver coins – recovered from a Spanish galleon that was sunk by the British in 1804 near the coast of Portugal. The bounty is estimated to be worth $500 million.

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A block of encrusted silver coins from the shipwreck of an 1804 galleon

The precious cargo carried by the doomed Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes had been the subject of a five-year ownership dispute between the Spanish government and the U.S.-based recovery company, Odyssey Marine Exploration. The professional treasure hunters located the ship on the ocean floor and used a remote-controlled submersible to bring 574,553 silver coins, 212 gold coins and other artifacts back to the surface.

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One of the 574,553 silver coins recovered

The Spanish government successfully argued in U.S. District Court that it had the rights to claim the recovered bounty, contending that it never relinquished ownership of the ship or its contents. The coins apparently were on their way to Spain after being minted in the Andes region of what are now the South American countries of Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

The court rejected Odyssey’s argument that since it made the discovery, it was entitled to all or most of the treasure. The company claimed that it spent $2.6 million salvaging, transporting, storing and conserving the coins and artifacts. Under the ruling, Odyssey is unlikely to receive any compensation from the Spanish government.

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Gold tobacco box

Among the items put on display by Spanish officials on Friday were 12 individual silver coins, a block of encrusted silver coins stuck together after centuries underwater, two gold tobacco boxes and a bronze pulley, according to a report by the Associated Press. The treasures recovered from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes will be seen at museums across Spain starting next year.

Although the value of the recovery was pegged at $500 million, Spanish officials said  the treasure is considered part of the country’s cultural heritage and, therefore, can never be sold under Spanish law.

“It’s invaluable,” Elisa de Cabo, the Culture Ministry’s deputy director of national heritage, told the Associated Press. “How would you put a price on the Mona Lisa?”

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