Treasure hunting

Florida couple finds rare gold coins from ancient Spanish shipwreck

The €900,000 haul is thought to have come from a galleon sunk during a storm in 1715

Gold coins and a chain recovered from a 18th century Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Florida by a married couple.
Gold coins and a chain recovered from a 18th century Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Florida by a married couple.Fleet-Queens Jewels LLC (REUTERS)

Like something out of a Robert Stevenson novel, a Florida family, whose businesses include underwater treasure hunting, has found an estimated €900,000 in gold coins. The haul was recovered from an 18th-century Spanish galleon sunk off the coast of the state.

The treasure was discovered about a month ago by the Schmitt family’s 27-year-old son Eric in the waters off Fort Pierce, a city with 42,000 inhabitants that is located some 210 kilometers north of Miami.

The Schmitt family had a hard time keeping the news of their find under wraps until now

The galleon was part of a fleet of 11 ships that departed from Havana in 1715, but sunk off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. That’s according to Brent Brisben, who owns the shipwreck salvage company 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels IIC, which helped recover the coins.

Brisben told the Florida Today website that keeping the news under wraps throughout this time was “particularly hard for the family that found it. They’ve been beside themselves.” The couple was identified as Rick and Lisa Schmitt.

The treasure consists of 51 gold coins dating from the period; 40 feet of an ornate gold chain; and a rare single coin called a “royal,” which was minted to honor King Felipe V of Spain.

Brisben said that the extremely rare silver-dollar-sized coin is worth “probably around half a million dollars itself,” because there are just a few in existence.

A news conference is scheduled for later Tuesday to release the details of the find.

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According to Brisben, the haul may have come from the flagship of the Capitana, which was captained by General Juan Estéban de Ubilla. The ship was carrying more than 3.5 million pesos in treasure, including the queen’s jewels, when it sank with the rest of the fleet en route to Spain on July 30, 1715.

Under US and Florida laws, the state is entitled to 20 percent of the haul, which will be placed in a museum. The rest of the treasure will be split between the Schmitt family and 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels.

It was unclear whether the Spanish government would file a claim for the treasure.

In 2012, after a five-year international legal battle, Florida-shipwreck hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration was ordered by the US Supreme Court to return to Spain 500,000 gold and silver coins the company had recovered from an 19th-century shipwreck in the Atlantic.

The case set legal precedent in the United States on the ownership of sunken treasure.

The coins are now on display at the Naval Museum in Cádiz.

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