TAMPA - A story of sunken treasure, Nazi art thieves and secret diplomatic cables would make a pretty good movie, but it's a true story playing out right here in Tampa. And like so much in the news lately it also involves WikiLeaks.
In 2007, Tampa based Odyssey Marine Exploration announced an historic discovery - a half billion dollars worth of gold and silver coins on the floor of the North Atlantic. The treasure was brought to the U.S., but Spain immediately claimed ownership sparking a legal battle.
Enter WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange whose massive release of classified documents revealed a secret deal between an American ambassador and Spanish officials.
The Guardian online found a diplomatic cable in which the American suggested he might be able to help Spain repatriate their coins if they would return a rare painting claimed by an American couple in San Diego.
Claude and Beverly Cassirer claim the Camile Pissarro painting “Rue St. Honore” was stolen from their family by the Nazis before it ended up in a Spanish museum. The American diplomat seemed to be suggesting a swap- the painting for the coins.
Odyssey Marine Exploration first learned about the leaked arrangement through the Guardian report.
“To think that the United States would sacrifice Odyssey, a publicly traded American company with American taxpayers, American shareholders for a painting is incongruous. It doesn't really make sense,” said Odyssey’s attorney, Melinda MacConnel.
MacConnell says the company is trying to find out more, but maintains the coins they found were in international waters and belong to the finder.
“The vast majority of the property that we recovered was private merchant property that never belonged to Spain,” said MacConnel.
Odyssey Marine already knows the federal government is not on their side. The U.S. Justice and State Departments sided with Spain in the original trial. But Odyssey suspected the government was working against them in other ways.
“They thought it was a conspiracy theory and we were being dramatic. But now we have proof."
The leaked cables indicate that Spain didn't much like the deal and no one acted it on it. Federal officials are not commenting. The dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Spanish Government is in a federal appeals court.
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