Treasure Hunting in the 21st Century

On October 5, 1804, the Santa María de las Mercedes sank, filled with gold and silver coins, worth $500 million. The treasure lay on the ocean floor for over two centuries, until, in 2007, it was discovered and a new battle began.
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A centuries-old shipwreck may cause Spain to sacrifice future recoveries and reopen colonial wounds.

On October 5, 1804, Spanish navy captain José Bustamante probably frowned when he looked through his telescope and discovered the Union Jack waving at the top of the mast approaching his frigate, off Cape St. Mary near Gibraltar. After overcoming illnesses, storms and attacks from pirates during five long weeks, the Spanish fleet that was bringing a cargo of gold, silver and other valuable goods from South America, was just 180 kilometers away from its final destination in Cadiz. But they never got to enter the safe waters of the Andalusian port.

A fierce attack from the British Navy commanded by Commodore Graham Moore was lethal for the four Spanish frigates. Three of them were conducted to Great Britain after Captain Bustamante surrendered. The fourth one, the frigate Santa María de las Mercedes was heavily bombed by the British guns and sank, filled with gold and silver coins, and 254 human lives.

The treasure has lain on the ocean floor for over two centuries. On May 18, 2007 the Tampa-based company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. announced that it had recovered 17 tons of coins, mostly silver, off the Portuguese coast. It was the most valuable finding from a single shipwreck in history, the company said. A few days later, Odyssey showed some of the coins to the media. The Spanish Government immediately recognized the effigy of King Carlos IV and, matching the archive of vessels sunk, soon concluded that the treasure discovered by Odyssey belonged to Las Mercedes' shipwreck, which contained over one million coins from Peru shipped from the port of Montevideo in 1804.

A new battle began. It is a battle that has lasted almost five years, where diplomacy and the legal arguments have replaced shotguns; a battle undertaken not in the fierce waters of the Atlantic Ocean but in the quiet halls of the American Courts. Its latest episode took place on February 17, 2012, when U. S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo ruled against the American company and ordered Odyssey to return the coins to Spain. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme court declined to hear the case. Nine days later the 600,000 pieces -- worth $500 million -- flew to Spain in two military planes and are now officially part of the Spanish cultural heritage.

The ruling has caused very different reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Spanish Minister of Culture, Jose Ignacio Wert, expressed the enormous satisfaction of the Spanish Government; Odyssey Vice President Melinda MacConnel, visibly disappointed, stated that the ruling had been politically influenced and that this precedent would discourage other treasure hunters from reporting their finds in the future. "The items will be hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on eBay," she said.

Despite its euphoria, Spain should not overlook the future consequences of the case. According to estimations of the Spanish Army, there could be as many as 3,000 Spanish shipwrecks that sank during the fourth century colonial age. Some say that the gold and silver inside them could be worth €100 billion, ten percent of the Spanish GDP. These figures could be realistic since the first archeological campaign undertaken by the Spanish Army in 2010 has detected only 128 shipwrecks in the Gulf of Cádiz.

Odyssey is an example of how private initiatives can move further and faster than governments in gathering the information and technology necessary to archeological discoveries. For that reason, the Spanish Government should be careful about the incentives and signals sent to the private agents. This case would have been a unique opportunity to establish a framework of collaboration between private and public agents that could increase the number of discoveries -- and the world's cultural heritage -- as well as profit treasure hunters.

However, Spain has decided not to share the findings and now will have to strengthen the surveillance operations and increase the budget allocated to these activities. While Spain is certainly allocating more money and attention to cultural discovery, it may also be giving up future recoveries. By deterring private initiative, funds and technology, Spain may be forestalling the discovery of cultural treasures.

But this is not the only missed opportunity. During the legal process, the government of Peru has claimed part of the treasure, since most of the precious metals and coins --that were intended to finance the war between Spain, France and Great Britain -- came from the former Spanish colony. Minister Wert has announced that the coins will be split and shown in different museums once they are classified. Nonetheless, it seems that all of them will be museums in Spain. Again, Spain is missing the opportunity to share the cultural heritage with its legitimate co-owners and pay back, at least symbolically, the moral debt that former empires have with their colonies. Indeed, culture and common heritage is an effective instrument to heal wounds from the past, but Spain has discarded it.

The episode of Las Mercedes is a rich legacy in colonial history that marks European wars, maritime battles, colonialism, high tech treasure hunting and international law. But above all, it demonstrates that the final word is never written and that history continues to provide modern countries with means for cooperation and mutual respect. By failing to lead a new approach to the cultural legacy, Spain may be incurring a cost much higher than what the coins of Las Mercedes can pay.

Manuel Garcia-Hernandez has been an adviser to the Spanish Minister of Industry, Tourism and Trade. He is completing his Master's of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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