Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus

A page from the Codex Calixtinus
A page from the Codex Calixtinus

This week sees the beginning of the trial of José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras, an electrician accused of stealing the 12th century illuminated manuscript from the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. The Codex was taken in July, 2011 and was recovered a year later in the garage of Castiñeiras.

The Codex contains illuminated sermons, music, descriptions of the pilgrimage on the Wa;y of St. James in Galicia in Spain. It is written in Latin, and Christopher Hohler the latin is intentionally bad, so that the text serves as a kind of grammar book. Even in the 12th century it seems students needed a lively picture and satire to get them to learn it seems. Writing in 1972 Hohler wrote that anyone used to reading 12th century Latin (which I am most certainly not) will: Continue reading “Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus”

11th Circuit Ruling Deals a Big Blow to Odyssey Marine

The explosion of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes

The 11th Circuit has ruled that the objects brought up from the wreck initially code-named the “Black Swan” should be released immediately to the custody of Spain. In response Odyssey’s stock is dropping rapidly.

In a press release Odyssey has said it will ask the full 11th Circuit to rehear the case en banc with the full complement of Federal Judges rather than the three judge panel which decided this appeal.

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Embassy Cables Discuss Odyssey Marine, and a Nazi era Dispute

So the World is buzzing with all the revelations, mundane and otherwise, offered by the release of diplomatic cables via wikileaks. This has touched all manner of foreign and diplomatic relations, even cultural property and heritage issues. The Guardian has reprinted and summarized a series of recent cables which detail meetings between US officials and Spanish officials between 2007 and 2010. The various positions and points of concern related here really don’t come as much of a surprise. What is perhaps heartening to note is the importance of these issues at the highest levels of international relations. Nations take these disputes very seriously.

It is certainly possible to over-emphasize the importance of these, but both parties certainly seem to have very different priorities. In a 2008 cable, Spanish Culture Minister Molina is concerned with the then-emerging dispute with Odyssey Marine, while the American Ambassador focuses on Spain’s dispute with Claude Cassirer. As the embassy cable summarized,

The Ambassador stressed the USG’s interest in direct discussions between the Spanish government and Claude Cassirer, the AmCit claimant of a painting by Camille Pisarro (“Rue St. Honore”) in the Thyssen Museum. The Ambassador noted also that while the Odyssey and Cassirer claim were on separate legal tracks, it was in both governments’ interest to avail themselves of whatever margin for manuever they had, consistent with their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favored the bilateral relationship. The minister listened carefully to the Ambassador’s message, but he put the accent on the separateness of the issues. Molina said that no Spanish government could return the painting (if this is what the claimant wants). To begin with, while the minister presides over the board that manages the Thyssen Museum’s collection, the minister could not oblige the board to return the painting without a (Spanish) legal judgment. The minister added that paying compensation, as the British government has reportedly done in a number of cases, also posed legal problems.

  1. Giles Tremlett, WikiLeaks cables: Art looted by Nazis, Spanish gold and an embassy offer, The Guardian, December 8, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/08/wikileaks-us-spain-treasure-art (last visited Dec 9, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Profile of Claude Cassirer

In September of last year the 9th Circuit held that Claude Cassirer can pursue a case against the Kingdom of Spain over this work, Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie, painted by Camille Pissarro in 1897.  In a profile of Cassirer in the L.A. Times, the 88 year-old argues the Spanish “have been most unfriendly, not cooperative in any way,” with respect to his claims for restitution.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the appeal again en banc, with an 11 judge panel, sometime in the coming months.  The work had been taken from Cassirer’s grandmother in 1939 before she fled Munich.  The Spanish government purchased the painting in 1993 as a part of the Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza’s collection.  The work has been valued now at $20 million. 

Spain paid the baron $50 million in 1988 to lease his collection for a decade, and halfway through bought it outright. The baron had designated Spain for his prized collection, valued at more than $2 billion, an apparently sentimental gesture honoring the last of his five wives, a former Spanish beauty queen. Thyssen-Bornemisza died in 2002.
“The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation thoroughly reviewed the complete historical record on Mr. Cassirer’s alleged claim and respectfully denied it,” said Thaddeus J. Stauber of Nixon Peabody LLP’s Los Angeles office, which represents the foundation.
Citing the statute granting foreign states immunity from U.S. lawsuits except under a few defined conditions, Stauber said “we do not think that the case properly belongs in the U.S. courts.”

  1.  Carol J. Williams, Pissarro masterpiece travels a twisted history, L.A. Times, April 7, 2010.
  2. Cassirer v. Kingdom of Spain, 580 F.3d 1048 (9th Cir. 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Odyssey/Spain Dispute Headed to 11th Circuit Appeal

The dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain over a shipwreck which was sunk in the early 19th Century will now likely be headed for appeal.  Federal District Court Judge Steven Merryday has issued an order that has adopted the Federal Magistrate’s Report and Recommendation.  In his order Judge Merryday stated a separate opinion would “add only length and neither depth nor clarity (and certainly not finality) to this dispute.”  Though this is a win for Spain, it also means the 11th circuit will now hear an appeal.   Back in the Spring, federal Magistrate Pizzo held the Federal District Court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute and the property should be returned to Spain. 


As I wrote then, though Odyssey Marine attempted to hide the true identity of the wreck, initially code-naming the wreck the Black Swan, there was enough information to conclude the coins came from the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes”, a warship which was carrying treasure back from Peru when it was sunk by the British off the Spanish coast in 1804. Spain, soon declared war on Great Britain, a point which may be lost in all this talk of the treasure. This treasure was an important piece of heritage, and all the talk of Odyssey’s share prices, and the rich treasure haul shouldn’t distract us from why these objects are protected, and why Spain fought so vigorously to have them declared the owner.This latest development then is not terribly surprising.  The case involves some complex issues of international admiralty law, and half a billion dollars in gold and silver coins.  It should be a fascinating appeal, as the 11th Circuit will set a precedent governing how these salvors can explore and remove historical objects from the ocean floor.

Odyssey Marine has a press release here.

James Thorner, Odyssey Marine’s treasure tangle with Spain moves to appeals court,  St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 23, 2009.

Richard Mullins, Sunken treasure case headed to federal appeals courtTampa Tribune, Dec. 23, 2009.  

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Spain Prevails For Now

“It is this comity of interests and mutual respect among nations . . . that warrants granting Spain’s motions to vacate the Mercedes‘s arrest and to dismiss Odyssey’s amended complaint”. So concludes US Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo yesterday in Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel.

Odyssey Marine has lost in its bid to petition a US court for ownership of the coins, and Spain has prevailed—for now—in its suit to regain half a million gold and silver coins from Odyssey Marine Exploration which recovered them from a wreck in the Atlantic Ocean. The recovery of the coins, thought to be worth as much as $500 million was announced, though the location of the wreck, and information about the wreck was kept secret. In response Spain filed suit, and seized some of Odyssey’s other vessels. UNESCO condemned the recovery, and much has been written and discussed about this recovery, considered perhaps the richest haul ever recovered from a wreck.

In the judgment which I’ve embedded below, the District Court held it lacked jurisdiction over the dispute and the property should be returned to Spain. Though Odyssey Marine attempted to hide the true identity of the wreck, initially code-naming the wreck the Black Swan, the court held that there was enough information to conclude the coins came from the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes”, a warship which was carrying treasure back from Peru when it was sunk by the British off the Spanish coast in 1804. Spain, soon declared war on Great Britain, a point which may be lost in all this talk of the treasure. This treasure was an important piece of heritage, and all the talk of Odyssey’s share prices, and the rich treasure haul shouldn’t distract us from why these objects are protected, and why Spain fought so vigorously to have them declared the owner.

So these coins may be destined for Spain, finally, even though these coins were initially taken from Peru, which also asserted an interest. This has been a protracted dispute, and one that may indeed continue at the appellate level. It will be interesting as well to see how much continued involvement Peru has with the appeals process, or if Spain and Peru can come to an agreement about what can or should be done with the objects.

Spain’s Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde is quoted by the BBC, calling the decision “a very important precedent for all future undersea discoveries”. Gregg Stemm, CEO of Odyssey Marine said “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.”

But for now, US Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo has the final word, concluding his recommendation, “More than two hundred years have passed since the Mercedes exploded. Her place of rest and all those who perished with her that fateful day remained undisturbed for centuries – until recently. International law recognizes the solemnity of their memorial, and Spain’s sovereign interests in preserving it.”

For more on the company this older piece from Voice of America is pretty interesting. This suit is really about the continued viability of this kind of business, and the perils of doing so without the support of organizations like UNESCO or other nations of origin:

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"We actually invited the Spanish government to send Archaeologists along."

So said Greg Stemm on the Today show last week discussing the ongoing dispute between Odyssey Marine and Spain. The interview was primarily an excercise in corporate self-promotion for the upcoming special on the sister network at 10 p.m. (ET) on Thursday, April 2, on the Discovery Channel’s “Treasure Quest.” Nonetheless there were some interesting comments made, though there was very little attention paid to archaeology or the importance of preservation of the site and the remains of the vessel.

The odd thing about this dispute and the Today segment in particular are the insistence on painting the controversy in terms of pirates and buried treasure and other romantic ideas. The reality of underwater heritage is far mor nuanced and important.

A few excerpts:

“The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.

Odyssey, a publicly held company that is a leader in deep-sea archaeology and treasure recovery, found the vast trove on a 2007 expedition in what it says are international waters off Portugal and the Straits of Gibraltar. The coins were spread over an area the size of several football fields at the bottom of the ocean.

After filling a chartered Boeing 757 with the coins and shipping them to Florida, Odyssey returned to the area to further investigate the site. There they were boarded by a Spanish warship, and the ship and crew were held for several days in a Spanish port.

Stemm concedes that the treasure may have been that carried by the Mercedes, but said that the identity of the vessel has not been established. One difficulty in doing that is that the Mercedes was hit in its powder magazine during the battle and blew up, leaving little actual wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.
Even if it was the Mercedes, Stemm said, that still does not automatically mean that Spain has sole claim to the treasure. Odyssey has argued in court that the Mercedes was carrying the treasure under contract with the merchants who owned it, and as such was acting as a merchant ship and not a warship.

“The Mercedes, if it was the Mercedes, was carrying a merchant cargo,” Stemm said. “While governments can take a sovereign immune warship and say that nobody can salvage it, they can’t say that you can’t salvage goods on behalf of merchants. In fact, we have the descendants of a lot of the merchants that had goods aboard the Mercedes that have come into court and said, ‘We think Odyssey should salvage these goods for us.’ ”

“And remember, there is not even a shipwreck there,” Stemm added. “This is like several football fields of just coins, scattered out over the bottom.”
Stemm says that the original expedition was to an area where his company believed a number of ships had sunk over the years. He said Odyssey notified the Spanish government of its intentions to search the area.

“When we went out to look in this general area, we thought there might be some Spanish shipwrecks,” he told Curry. “We actually invited the Spanish government to send archaeologists along. They just never got back to us.”

Goold has told other news outlets that Spain did respond to the invitation, telling Stemm, “Sunken ships are cultural heritage. Spain does not do commercial deals. It’s national patrimony.”


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com