The battle for the 'Mercedes' millions





For 200 years, the silver coins settled silently into the Atlantic seabed, 3,000 feet beneath the waves. They gathered in clumps like rocks across a vast swath of ocean floor near southern Portugal, crusting over with sediment and weighing a total of 17 tonnes.

The coins were certainly of no use to the 250 sailors who carried them from Peru on what was probably the Spanish frigate Nuestra SeƱora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804, torn apart by British cannon fire. But now, transported from their watery-yet-lucrative grave to litigious landlubbers, those 600,000 idle coins, reportedly worth up to $500 million, are working overtime.

They have sparked a high-stakes legal battle in the United States between Spain, which claims ownership of the bounty, and Odyssey Marine Exploration, the American shipwreck-hunting company that detected it with hi-tech robots, extricated it from the seabed and flew it in bucketfuls to Florida in 2007. And they have dredged up murky questions about ownership and preservation of the three million shipwrecks that Unesco believes still rest on the world's ocean floors.

Most recently those crusty coins, believed to be the largest collection from a single deep-water site, have a caused diplomatic embarrassment too, thanks to US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. They revealed the latest, and highly unlikely, weapon in the transatlantic skirmish over the sunken treasure: an impressionist painting by Camille Pissarro, entitled Rue Saint-Honore, Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie....





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