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June 29, 2017

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Spain places controversial coin haul from sunken ship on show

MADRID--Spain has proudly put on show tens of thousands of silver coins from a 19th-century shipwreck that it won back in court from U.S. treasure hunters.

The country's soon-to-be king, Felipe, and future queen Letizia on Thursday launched the exhibition in central Madrid celebrating the return of the sunken treasure to Spain.

They viewed treasures and documents that tell the story of how British warships blew up the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sending its precious cargo to the bottom of the sea.

The highlight of the show, in the basement of Madrid's recently reopened National Archaeological Museum, is a glass case containing heaps of more than 30,000 tarnished silver coins.

The cargo came to Spain in 2012 after a five-year legal battle with Odyssey, the U.S. company that hauled it up two centuries after it sank.

"It's emotional," said James Goold, a U.S. lawyer who fought Spain's case in the courts. "To get it back to Spain says to me: 'Mission accomplished.'"

Sea Battle, Treasure Hunt

On Oct. 5, 1804, the Mercedes was nearing the coast of Spain on its way from Peru, part of the Spanish empire at the time.

Spain and France had signed a peace treaty with Britain in 1802 but that soon broke down.

British ships thought the Mercedes was carrying treasure bound for Napoleon's coffers.

They fired cannons at the Mercedes, blowing up its powder kegs and sinking it — a moment captured in a contemporary oil painting in the exhibition.

The attack, known as the Battle of Cape Santa Maria, led Spain to declare war on Britain and re-enter the Napoleonic Wars.

In May 2007, deep-sea search specialists Odyssey Marine Exploration found the wreck at a depth of 1,700 feet (518 meters) in the Atlantic.

Spanish authorities said at the time that the trove was worth at least 350 million euros (US$474 million) overall. It is thought to be the most valuable sunken treasure discovery in history.

Odyssey challenged Spain's sovereign claim to the cargo and said the wreck lay in international waters. Peru and descendants of the treasure's original owners also claimed it.

But a judge in Florida ruled in March 2012 that the trove belonged to Spain. The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a final appeal by Odyssey in May 2012.

Winning the Battle

The 30,000 coins on show in Madrid are just a fraction of the estimated 580,000 found in the wreck.

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