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US appeals court rules that Odyssey haul must be returned to Spain

Spain has 10 days to collect 594,000 silver and gold coins taken from a shipwreck

Spain will have 10 days to pick up some 594,000 silver and gold coins taken from a Spanish shipwreck, now that a US appeals court in Atlanta has ruled that the historic currency must be given back to the government in Madrid, a top Cabinet official said Wednesday.

José Ignacio Wert, the education, culture and sports minister, said he was glad that the US Court of Appeals denied a request by Odyssey Marine Exploration to keep the coins it took in 2007 from the shipwreck Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes until it could ask the US Supreme Court to review the case.

In a short one sentence ruling, US Circuit Court Judge Susan H. Black wrote "denied" to Odyssey's motion for a stay.

The Tampa, Florida-based treasure hunter had already lost its appeal with the Atlanta court on September 20 when a three-judge panel ruled that Spain had the legal rights to the coins based, among other things, on the 1902 Treaty of Friendship and General Relations between the United States of America and Spain. Odyssey wanted an en banc hearing, but the court denied their request on November 29.

The coins, which are under the custody of the US Marshall's Service in Tampa, are worth about $500 million, according to Odyssey, and have been at the center of a five-year legal battle in the United States.

"This is excellent news, "said Wert on the SER radio network. "It is not going to make us rich but it will enrich us."

"We have 10 days to go and pick up the treasure or we lose it," he added.

Wert's ministry, along with the Foreign and Defense Ministries, will coordinate the operation to bring back 17 tons of gold and silver, in 600 plastic bins, each weighing about 25 kilos.

Besides the bureaucracy involved, the operation will logistically be a difficult one, and will involve two military jets.

Odyssey is expected to file an appeal with the US Supreme Court in the coming days. But it is doubtful that the top court in Washington will review the marine explorer's cause because justices usually hear between 65-70 oral arguments each year and review a similar number on paper. This represents less than two percent of all the petitions for review submitted annually, according to legal experts.