Salvors strike gold off Florida’s “treasure coast”

Posted on: August 14, 2014 by

As further proof of its moniker the “treasure coast”, Reuters reports the recovery of a three centuries’ old treasure off the east coast of Florida. This is the most recent publicised discovery from the wreck site of the so-called “1715 fleet”, a convoy of approximately a dozen vessels (of which one apparently survived) which sank in 1715 off Florida’s east coast on the way back from the New World having been caught in a hurricane on 30 June 1715.

The wreck site of the 1715 fleet reputedly lies about 150 yards offshore and in parts only 15 feet under the Atlantic.

Eric Schmitt, reportedly a salvager of long standing from a family outfit known as Booty Salvage, was exploring the wreck site of the 1715 fleet when he made the discovery.

The bounty recovered is thought to be the missing piece of a three hundred year old gold filigree necklace, known as a pyx, which forms part of the sacred garb of Spanish priests. The pyx is an accessory which is worn on a chain around the neck of a high priest to carry the communion host. The original section of the piece was recovered approximately 25 years ago and is thought to date to the late 1600s.

Title to the wreck site vests in a corporation called 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels, LLC, who have since 2010 held a permit to salvage the 1715 fleet. Reports say that its Operations Manager, Brent Brisben, hailed the discovery as “priceless” and “one of a kind”.

It is also reported that Schmitt discovered approximately $300,000 worth of gold coins and chains from the same wreck site in 2013.

This is the sort of find that galvanizes the heritage community and will rekindle the polarised and well-trammeled debate which pits those who vaunt the merits of treasure seeking and salvage against those who advocate protection of wreck sites in situ.

As finders, the Schmitts are in a relatively strong position under Florida law. Treasure hunting has been long been legal in Florida but there have been recent calls by marine archaeologists for a crackdown on the practice alongside some tougher federal restrictions under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1988 and relatively new requirements which require treasure hunters to seek an exploratory permit from the state.

This bounty will be placed under the custody of the U.S District Court in South Florida and the State of Florida may take possession of up to 20% of the estimated value of the find (it is not yet known whether this would require its sale). The rest will be split evenly between the owner of the wreck, 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels, LLC and the Schmitt family. Again, how this value will be realized is not clear.

The murky waters of wreck ownership are increasingly hard to navigate and this find puts some of principal issues front and centre. In the next edition of Art, Antiquity and Law, I’ll be turning to a more in-depth look at this find and some of those issues such as state sovereignty over wrecks, the present state of play of the UN Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention and the UK government’s use of maritime salvage agreements. The edition, when it becomes available, will be found here.