Gems coming back
Emeralds must be here for court case
BY ADAM LINHARDT Citizen Staff
Determining ownership of a cache of emeralds found in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, purported to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, may come down to whether Key West's most well-known treasure hunting family can prove they have a legal claim to them.
U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King on Tuesday told attorneys on both sides that Kim Fisher, son of the late treasure-hunting legend Mel Fisher and head of the Delaware-based salvage company Motivation Inc., needs to cite case law stating the Fisher family has a legal claim to treasure from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha and its sister ship Santa Margarita, even if such treasure is found outside the "scatter trail." That is the line of treasure or artifacts that has been shifting off the main ballast piles due to currents and storms over the years.
Fisher filed a legal claim to the emeralds that treasure diver Jay Miscovich reportedly found in January 2010 about 40 miles northeast of the Atocha and Margarita sites, saying they came from the Atocha or Margarita, which Miscovich denies.
Once that matter is resolved, the judge may move forward in the discovery process, which would allow Fisher's experts to analyze the gemstones. Fisher wants to look at the emeralds, and his attorneys told the judge that if he does so and determines the stones didn't come from either shipwreck, he would drop his claim.
"Basically, all we want to do is have our experts look at those emeralds and if they determine they didn't come from the Atocha or the Margarita, then fine, we're out of there," Fisher said Friday. "But if they did come from those shipwrecks, then we have to talk."
The judge, who has been presiding over Fisher family treasure claims for the last 36 years, said that process will have to wait for now.
Miscovich's attorney, David Paul Horan, said his client didn't want to turn over the emeralds for Fisher to examine until Fisher explains more fully in court why he thinks the gemstones came from the Atocha or Margarita. He called Fisher's desire to look at the gemstones a "fishing expedition."
The two wrecked Spanish galleons and the legalities surrounding their valuable cargo are familiar territory for Horan, who famously represented Mel Fisher in the 1970s and 80s. Horan was part of the legal team that argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately won the case against the state of Florida that allowed Fisher to keep the treasure he found.
Miscovich claims there's no way the emeralds came from the Fisher shipwrecks because they came from Colombian mines that did not operate when the Atocha or Margarita sailed. Both galleons sank in 1622 in a hurricane off Key West. Horan added that the stones Miscovich found are of a different quality than those that have been found on the Atocha or Margarita.
Fisher is quick to point out that Miscovich reportedly found the gemstones scattered on the sandy sea floor, absent any evidence of a nearby shipwreck other than the Atocha or Margarita. A piece from either shipwreck could have drifted in a storm and shifted miles to where Miscovich found them, Fisher said.
Despite Miscovich's desire that Fisher not examine the emeralds right now, he has voluntarily agreed to return them all to Key West because they must physically be in Florida's southern federal judicial district for the court to have jurisdiction over them.
Some of them are in a safe-deposit box in Key West, but many others are at a jewelry store in Pennsylvania and still more are in a New York City bank safe-deposit box, Horan told the judge. The emeralds in New York City and Pennsylvania are being returned to Key West with armed security, which has piqued the interest of "60 Minutes." The CBS news program will film some of the emeralds' travels for an upcoming broadcast, Horan said.
Nothing is certain in treasure salvage law and it appeared from the judge's questions for attorneys on both sides Tuesday that the opening salvos in this legal row are only just beginning.