Odyssey Marine fights for its $500 milllion deep sea booty

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. (OMEX), which shrouds its for-profit underwater archaeological digs in secrecy, suffered a very public setback today after a federal magistrate ruled that contents from a ship wreck codenamed "Black Swan," whose 2007 discovery was greeted by an avalanche of publicity, are the property of the government of Spain.

Shares of the Tampa, Florida-based company plunged nearly 43 percent in mid-afternoon trading, erasing its gains for the year. Earlier, Odyssey shares hit $1.39, which Bloomberg News said was their lowest level since July 2003. The value of the Black Swan's treasure of 500,000 coins weighing more than 17 tons, has been estimated at $500 million
The company, which originally said the Black Swan was "beyond the territorial waters or legal jurisdiction of any country," vows to appeal. Spain has claimed the ship is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes y las Animas, which was sunk by the British in 1804 off the Straits of Gibraltar.

"Odyssey has done everything by the book," said CEO Greg Stemm in a press release. "I'm confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain's claim, and we'll be back to argue the merits of the case."

Cheryl Ward, an associate professor of anthropology at Florida State University, told the DailyFinance that the court's decision was correct.

"I am delighted with the ruling," she said. "It's important for the U.S. to perform its responsibilities as a world citizens as we expect other countries to do."

Odyssey Marine, which first gained notoriety in 2003 with the discovery of the Civil War-era shipwreck the SS Republic, never presented any evidence to prove that Spain's identification of the ship was wrong, according to Ward.

"Their response was to simply to deny it vehemently rather than provide details," she said.

Archaeologists and professional treasure hunters often at odds. Scientists argue that the businesses are only interested in making a quick buck. Odyssey Marine and other for-profit treasure seekers say these criticisms are unfair.

For Ward, whose had problems with looters destroying her digs, the issue of the need for professional archaeologists is a simple one.

"Let me ask you this question: would you want an amateur doctor do your operation?" she said. "Archaeologists take too long. That's always a bone of contention. It's a real clash of values."

Moreover, archeology is not as glamorous as the treasure hunters suggest. The work can often be tedious.

"They make their living selling a dream," she said. "It's not profitable for the investor."
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