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Nearly 250 years after the treasure-laden Notre Dame de Deliverance sank, apparently in the Florida Straits, the Spanish government is claiming it never abandoned the ship and is asserting its sovereign rights to control the wreck and its cargo of gold, silver and gems estimated to be worth as much as $3 billion. In response to Spain’s claim, U.S. officials told that nation’s attorneys last week that they will be kept fully informed about attempts to survey and inventory the wreck and will be consulted “on the permitting of any activities that would involve disturbance of the site.” Spain’s demands were delivered in a Dec. 24 letter from a Washington, D.C., law firm to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “This is to advise that the Kingdom of Spain has not abandoned its interest in such a vessel and/or its contents and does not consent to or authorize salvage or other disturbance. … Spain expressly reserves all rights of sovereign immunity,” wrote attorney James A. Goold, after consulting with Spanish officials. Sub Sea Research Inc., of Portland, Maine, located what it believes to be the Deliverance last summer in 200 feet of water about 40 miles southwest of Key West. In October, the company obtained a protective order from Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Paine in West Palm Beach, Fla., allowing it to “arrest” the shipwreck and keep other commercial salvagers away. According to Sub Sea Research, the Notre Dame de Deliverance was a 166-foot, armed merchant vessel owned by the long-defunct French West Indies Co. and had a homeport in Marseilles, France. When it capsized and sank in a hurricane on Nov. 1, 1755, with 512 souls aboard, it had been leased to Spain’s King Charles III. While the wreck is outside Florida’s territorial waters, it is “substantially” inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, according to court records. As a result, Sub Sea Research needs permits from the sanctuary, a federal trusteeship co-administered by the state of Florida and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to thoroughly inspect the site and haul any treasure to the surface. In another development, the United States has decided to grant Sub Sea Research, which has made a sizable investment in the search, an initial permit to explore the wreck further. “NOAA intends to issue the applicant a nonintrusive survey and inventory permit to better document and interpret this site,” according to a Jan. 8 letter to Goold by Lt. Cmdr. David Score, a NOAA official and a sanctuary manager. According to Goold, of counsel to Covington & Burling, Spain has owned the wreck’s contents since it sank. “Abandonment of Spanish property doesn’t take place just because of the passage of time. U.S. law respects the rights of other nations,” Goold said. Despite its interest and claim, Spain won’t contribute to any costs in defraying the risks or identifying and inventorying the wreck. Rather, Spain will let Sub Sea Research pick up that tab, while it waits to claim any undersea fortune. “The treasure-hunting business is a risky one,” said Goold, who learned of the Deliverance treasure hunt from a recent article in the Miami Daily Business Review. A partial list of cargo aboard for the ill-fated voyage from Havana to Cadiz includes 17 chests filled with nearly 1,200 pounds of gold bullion, 15,000 gold doubloons, six chests of gems and more than 1 million silver coins. Such a horde would be much greater than what was aboard the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which was found by the late Mel Fisher in the 1970s about 10 miles from where Sub Sea Research believes it has found the Deliverance. Spain’s legal strategy today is more aggressive than the “finders keepers” approach it took with the Atocha. Spain never asserted a claim to the Atocha. The law considers wreck sites to be “submerged cultural resources.” Sanctuary rules, which evolved from Fisher’s long yet successful legal fight with Florida over the right to the Atocha treasure, allow private salvagers to work wrecks on public property as long as the public’s interest in historic preservation is protected. Generally, that means the public would own unique artifacts, but salvagers may obtain legal title to bullion, coins and gems deemed by archeologists to be of no special historical interest. Divers and electronic monitoring have shown the wreck is on a silt-covered seabed with its hull virtually intact. Two piles of ballast stones are nearby. There is no coral in the area, and no environmental problems are apparent that might impact future salvage operations, according to archeologist Duncan Matthewson, a Sub Sea Research consultant. THE MAIN QUESTION The sanctuary’s decision to consult with Spain about the site that is possibly the wreck of the Deliverance was in accord with rules requiring NOAA and Florida to jointly consider whether a wreck is subject to a sovereign immunity claim. However, Lt. Cmdr. Score’s letter asks Spain to answer several questions that, if the wreck is indeed the Deliverance, may ultimately decide who gets to control it. The central question: Was the Deliverance a “state vessel?” Treasure hunter Greg Brooks, a former swimming pool builder and co-manager of Sub Sea Research, said his research proves the Deliverance was privately owned and not a Spanish warship. The courts have held that sovereign vessels of Spain, such as warships, are covered by the 1902 Treaty of Friendship and General Relations between the United States and Spain. The treaty, signed in the wake of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor and the Spanish-American War, protects the shipwrecks and military gravesites of the two nations. Under the treaty, sovereign vessels may only be abandoned by “express acts” of the governments, according to a 2000 opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. Brooks and his lawyers, including Tallahassee, Fla.’s Guy E. “Sandy” Burnette Jr., therefore insist that Spain has no legitimate claim. “If Spain produces a verification that it was on their records as a sovereign vessel, the issue will be moot, because we realize you can’t touch a sovereign vessel,” Brooks said. “But they haven’t produced a shred of evidence on that.” Spain’s attorney, Goold, takes a different position. In correspondence with the U.S. government, he noted the Deliverance was “engaged in the service of the Kingdom of Spain at the time of its sinking and was transporting property of the Kingdom of Spain in time of war. As such, the site is also likely to be the resting place of persons who died in the service of the Kingdom of Spain.” Spain is working to further document its claim. Goold, who is himself an amateur archeologist and chairman of Key West’s RPM Nautical Foundation, told sanctuary officials last week that Spain is researching the history of the Notre Dame de Deliverance. Even if the wreck is not a sovereign vessel, Goold said Spain still has a legitimate claim because the lost cargo was Spanish property. “It is a general principal of international law that the sunken property of a nation remains the property of the nation, and you cannot conduct salvage of someone’s sunken property if the owner objects,” Goold said. “Abandonment requires some affirmative renunciation by the owner.” Goold should know. In 2000, he helped Spain successfully assert claims in the Richmond federal appeals court regarding two nontreasure, sovereign ships, La Galga and the Juneo, lost in 1750 and 1802 respectively. Meanwhile, Spain’s strategy is to watch and wait while Sub Sea Research labors to identify the wreck. What will Spain do if the wreck is the Deliverance? Will Spain, if awarded control, stage a salvage operation of its own? Will it seek to sell off long-lost loot plundered from colonies in the New World? “It’s too early to say,” Goold said.

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