Tons of gold and silver from a Spanish ship that sunk in 1804 and was discovered by a U.S. deep sea exploration company was on its way to Spain on Friday aboard two military transport planes.
The transfer ends a five-year legal battle between Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. and Spain over treasure from the sunken frigate "Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes," the most valuable sunken treasure discovery in history.
"The total was 49,000 pounds, much more than the 17 tons thought at first, because the first quantity the company announced was not correct," Miguel Morer, press spokesman for the Spanish Defense Ministry, told AFP.
British warships sunk the Spanish ship off the coast of Portugal near the Straits of Gibraltar during the Battle of Cape Santa Maria in October 1804.
Odyssey discovered the shipwreck in May 2007 and shipped the treasure to the United States without notifying any government authorities.
The company stored the roughly $500 million worth of coins and artifacts at a warehouse in its hometown of Tampa.
The two Spanish Hercules transport planes departed MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa overnight Thursday to Friday carrying the treasure.
The flight includes refueling stops in New Jersey and Canada before flying to Spain's Torrejon Air Base near Madrid for a landing around noon Saturday.
The treasure -- 595,000 silver and gold coins, along with religious images and chests -- is being handled carefully, Morer said.
"All this is in very poor condition because it has spent the past 208 years submerged and it still is submerged just to preserve it," he said.
Special packaging is being used to store the treasure in seawater and a liquid chemical to protect it from deterioration, Morer said.
Spain was allowed to take control of the treasure on February 18, when U.S. District Court Judge Mark Pizzo in Tampa denied Odyssey's claim for $412,814 in storage and preservation fees from the Spanish government.
The five-year court battle included other rulings against Odyssey from a federal appeals court in Atlanta and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
U.S. federal courts ruled that regardless of who discovered the ship and where its treasure was stored, U.S. treaties define it as remaining the property of the country of origin.
The U.S. courts ruled that the country of origin was Spain -- even though the coins were minted in Peru, which at the time was a Spanish colony.
On Friday the Peruvian government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency order to halt the transfer so they can stake a claim to the treasure.
Lima's envoy in Washington, Harold Forsyth, acknowledged it was a long shot, but told reporters that he wanted to set a legal precedent.
Odyssey officials said the February 18 court ruling could undermine Spain's cultural heritage.
Spain "has failed to consider that in the future no one will be incentivized to report underwater finds," Odyssey officials said in a statement.
"Anything found with a potential Spanish interest will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay."
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