The “Black Swan” ship, later known as Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, is one of the most notorious marine treasures recovered in history. It made worldwide news and spawned a series of lawsuits and court cases that made it all the way to the Supreme Court in the United States. 



The Mystery of the Black Swan Treasure 

Code-named “the Black Swan,” a project funded by the Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered an incredible $500 million (£314 million) treasure in gold and silver on the ocean floor. For a time after its discovery was revealed, the company kept the origin a secret, adding to the overall mystery and inspiring a great deal of speculation.

At the time, scholars and the general public had a number of ideas regarding where the treasure could possibly have come from. Despite Odyssey’s assertion that it came from a single ship, some have suggested that it may have come from multiple shipwrecks in the area. 

A portion of the Black Swan treasure on display
A portion of the Black Swan treasure on display

Credit: Benjamín Núñez González

One of the initially proposed sources of the treasure was the Merchant Royal, a ship that, while on its way to London, sank to the ocean floor in September 1641. The lost cargo, at the time, was detailed as:

300,000 Pounds in silver, 100,000 Pounds in gold, and as much again in jewel.

In May 2008, after a US Federal Court in Tampa ordered them to, Odyssey revealed that the treasure came from the wreck of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. The ship sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 and was known, at the time, to be carrying around a million silver dollars. It is believed that these coins had never reached circulation and that they were on their way from South America to Spain.

The Black Swan Court Case 

After removing the 17 tons of discovered coins from the ocean floor, Odyssey Marine Exploration was sued by the Spanish government in the United States courts. They were eventually ordered to return the treasure to Spain after the case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court. 

It wasn’t until 2012 that the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was returned to Spain. Today, they are on display at the National Museum of Subaquatic Archaeology in Cartagena. After the trial, Odyssey Marine Exploration was also forced to pay $1 million by a U.S. district court for their “bad faith and abusive litigation,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

After the various legal proceedings were over, the Spanish government examined the wreck site and discovered that Odyssey had utilized damaging recovery tactics, effectively destroying the remnants of the ship. 

Approximate location of the 'Black Swan' shipwreck
The approximate location of the shipwreck

Credit: Trounce


What Happens if You Find Shipwreck Treasure?

The Odyssey Marine Exploration court case raised a number of questions regarding what happens if you find shipwreck treasure. If you’re following a certain series of laws, known as the Laws of Finds, then the treasure is entirely yours. But, the vessel’s owners must not have been actively searching for it for a number of years (having given up on finding it) before you stake a claim to it.

There are some exceptions, for example, the Abandoned Shipwrecked Act that was passed in 1987 in the United States. It says that any treasure discovered at least three miles from the coastline belongs to the United States. The Law of Finds also does not apply to government ships. 

Submerged shipwreck
One of many submerged shipwrecks in the world’s oceans

It is this kind of exception that eventually forced Odyssey Marine Exploration to turn over the treasure to the Spanish government. A U.S. district judge, ruling on the case, wrote: 

The ineffable truth of this case is that the Mercedes is a naval vessel of Spain and that the wreck of this naval vessel, the vessel’s cargo, and any human remains are the natural and legal patrimony of Spain.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court where a final decision was reached. Since the end of the case, the treasure has found a home at the National Museum of Subaquatic Archaeology in Cartagena.

Are There More Sunken Treasures?

Absolutely, especially considering the estimated number of undiscovered shipwrecks. 

According to Popular Mechanics, James Delgado, director of the Maritime Heritage Program at the NOAA estimates that there are around a million known and undiscovered shipwrecks still submerged underwater. Other researchers have suggested that it’s impossible to put a number on the number of shipwrecks that lay undiscovered by human beings, and therefore, an estimate on any possible lost treasure. 

NOAA investigating a shipwreck
An NOAA employee investigating a shipwreck

When asked to speculate about the monetary value of all the shipwrecks currently undiscovered, Scott Fischer, a treasure hunter from Key West Florida, said around $60 billion.

According to Popular Mechanics, he based this number on the average losses that Spanish ships incurred as they traveled from the Americas back to Europe. 

But, Fischer does warn any would-be treasure hunters that the amount of money it takes to uncover such a valuable wreck, like the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, would be incredibly expensive and would likely not make the effort worthwhile. 

FAQs 

How did the Black Swan ship sink?

The “Black Swan” ship, or the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, likely sank due to heavy weather and pump failure. The water leaked through the hull plants dooming the ship. 

Was the Black Swan a real ship?

“Black Swan” was a code name used by Odyssey Marine Exploration to describe their recovery of the gold and silver coins from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes off the Portuguese coast. 

Where is the Black Swan shipwreck?

The shipwreck is off the coast of Portugal. At the site, Odyssey Marine Exploration found the remains of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (almost all of which were destroyed during the company’s retrieval of the treasure).

When did the Black Swan ship sink?

The “Black Swan” ship, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sank in 1804. The $500 million in treasure sat at the bottom of the ocean until Odyssey Marine Exploration removed it without the Spanish government’s consent. 

Who found the Black Swan treasure?

Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Tampa, Florida-based company, discovered the treasure. More than 17 tons of gold and silver were removed from the site. This included 500,000 silver coins, other gold items, and jewels.