Planes carrying the cargo of the 19th-century Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes took off Friday from MacDill Air Force Base on the final leg of a journey that began more than 200 years ago.
The two Spanish air force C-130 Hercules transports are scheduled to touch down Saturday at Madrid's Torrejon air base with the 595,000 gold and silver coins U.S. treasure-hunting firm Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. recovered from the wreckage of the Mercedes, which sank in 1804.
The arrival in Spain of the hoard, valued by Odyssey at $500 million (380 million euros), will mark the end Madrid's nearly five-year-long battle in the U.S. courts.
Spaniards will be able to say "mission accomplished" once the coins are on Spanish soil, Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar, said Friday on the runway at MacDill.
The envoy recalled the crew of the Mercedes, who perished when the frigate went down off the coast of Portugal in a battle with the British navy.
"If they could not complete their mission, now at least part of their work will have been completed," Dezcallar said, thanking the U.S. government for its help in the handover of the treasure.
Asked about the actions of Odyssey, which recovered the coins in May 2007, the ambassador said the company should have paid more attention to the other elements of the Mercedes wreckage, including the remains of the ship's crew.
"We have recovered part of the historical legacy. It is not a treasure, it is part of Spain's history," he said, suggesting that Madrid would be open to working with treasure hunters such as Odyssey to recover other Spanish ships.
The attorney who represented Spain in the legal fight, James Goold, said Odyssey deserves neither gratitude nor compensation from Madrid, as the company's operation to salvage the coins resulted in damage to the Mercedes site.
The litigation over the treasure reached its end last Friday at the federal courthouse in Tampa, where U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo ordered Odyssey to turn over the coins to Spain.
It was more than two years ago that U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday upheld Pizzo's initial finding that Spain was the rightful owner of the treasure Odyssey salvaged from the waters where the Mercedes was destroyed in 1804.
Within days of recovering the coins, Odyssey took the loot to Gibraltar and loaded it onto a chartered Boeing 757 for transport back to the United States.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected on Feb. 2 a motion from Odyssey seeking an injunction against the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' order to turn over the treasure.
Odyssey filed the brief with the Supreme Court days after the 11th Circuit rejected the company's motion to stay the same court's November decision ordering the firm to turn over the coins.