Did an American treasure hunter plunder Spain’s cultural heritage?  Or should private companies have a right to profit from historic vessels sunk in international waters?

Those were the questions that a federal judge in Tampa, Florida took into account last week before ordering Odyssey Marine Exploration to turn over almost $500 million in gold and silver coins salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck.

“The judge saw that the ship and its contents belong to Spain,” Angeles Gonzales-Sine, Spain’s minister of culture, told the Telegraph, “It’s a hugely important ruling and one that will set a precedent for future claims.”

Odyssey, which has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s Treasure Hunters, is the most sophisticated and well-financed treasure-hunting outfit on the planet and the only one that is publicly traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange.  In March 2007, the company recovered more than 500,000 gold and silver coins from a vessel code-named “Black Swan” and hauled them back to their base in Florida. An inspiration to treasure hunters everywhere, the Spanish government calls the Odyssey “21st century pirates.” Spain demanded return of the treasure from a vessel they believe to be Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which the British sunk off of Portugal in 1804.

The case comes at a time when public entities are seeking a reckoning for their lost cultural and scientific heritage around the world. According to Smithsonian Magazine, legal battles over dinosaur fossils are on the rise pitting amateur prospectors and collectors against government agencies. The Republic of Peru is currently battling Yale University for the return of artifacts that archaeologist Hiram Bingham brought back from Machu Piccu in the early 20th century.  Indeed, Spain’s case against Odyssey is complicated by the fact that the precious metals were originally extracted in Peru, which has also laid claim to the precious cargo.

"The question is, just because you're the first one out there to get it, should you get to keep it — especially if it belongs to someone else?" James Delgado, director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University told the Associated Press.

Since Wednesday's ruling, Odyssey’s stock (OMEX) dropped by over 50 percent.  But in a statement posted on their website, the company has vowed to appeal the decision and expressed optimism it they would prevail.

“We have said all along that legal issues with shipwrecks are complicated,” Odyssey chief executive Gregg Stemm told the AP, “and it may take awhile to work them out.”

Image of Odyssey Explorer courtesy graybags60 via Flickr.

Image of Spanish coins said to be identical to ones salvaged by Odyssey courtesy Andres Lara/Spanish Ministry of Culture.