This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
REPORTING FROM MADRID -- One of the world's largest shipwreck treasures is being loaded onto Spanish military planes in Florida on Friday to complete a long-delayed trip home that began more than 200 years ago but was interrupted by war on the high seas and a nasty legal battle over ownership.
The Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was sunk by British warships off Europe's Atlantic coast in 1804 while on its return from South America. It was carrying more than half a million gold and silver coins back to Spain -- valued today at several hundred million dollars -- along what was once one of the world's most-traveled routes for warships and trade.
In 2007, a U.S. deep-sea diving company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, used underwater robots to locate the long-lost vessel on the ocean floor off Portugal. The company laid claim to the bounty and says it spent more than $2 million to retrieve the precious cargo, the biggest trove of coins ever extracted from the deep sea. The haul was flown back to Florida, where the 17 tons of mostly 18th century silver coins have been kept in warehouses in Sarasota.
But Spain challenged Odyssey Marine's claim to the booty, and won. After a five-year court battle, a U.S. federal judge awarded the treasure to Spain and ordered Odyssey Marine to relinquish it to Spanish authorities by Friday. Spanish archaeologists have been in Florida for several days, inspecting the coins ahead of the transfer.
In a surprise last-ditch effort, another bid for the treasure surfaced Thursday when Peru filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming ownership because the gold and silver coins were mined, refined and minted in the South American nation, then part of the Spanish empire. Peru asked the high court to halt the treasure's flight back to Spain to allow Peruvian lawyers more time to prepare their case. But U.S. courts have previously rejected similar claims by descendants of Peruvian merchants, and the Supreme Court did not indicate when or if it would respond.
The treasure's journey to Spain was set for sometime Friday, the court-appointed deadline, but details and exact timing are shrouded in secrecy for security's sake. U.S. marshals are expected to secure 100 miles of southern Florida highway along which the treasure will be trucked from the Sarasota storage facility to Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, where two Spanish military C-130 transport planes will ferry it home.
[Updated 10:41 a.m. Feb. 20: Spanish military planes laden with the shipwreck treasure had left Florida as of 10:41 a.m. Friday morning.]
Spain's culture minister has said the treasure will be divided among several national museums.
-- Lauren Frayer
Photo: A member of the Spanish Culture Ministry's technical crew displays some of the coins found in the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Credit: Culture Ministry of Spain