Gold, silver from 1715 Spanish fleet found in shallow water off Treasure Coast

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — A gold-rimmed portrait necklace, several gold and silver coins and numerous artifacts from a 1715 Spanish fleet have been discovered in about 10 feet of water off the aptly named Treasure Coast.

The June 19 find just off Indian River Shores was revealed last week by a firm that also said it has acquired the salvage rights to the sunken ships from the heirs of world-famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher.

In 1715, an 11-ship fleet set sail from Cuba laden with gold bars, coins, diamonds, emeralds and pearls bound for King Philip V of Spain. The bounty included the dowry for Philip's new bride, Elisabeth. The ships sank in a hurricane.

"The ships were blown into the reefs and sank, so they're relatively close to shore," said Brent Brisben of Sebastian, who with his father, William Brisben of Jupiter Island, formed Queen's Jewels and bought the U.S. admiralty custodianship of the Spanish fleet and the right to salvage the wrecked ships from Fisher's heirs.

The sites of six of the sunken ships have been found, some in only 10 feet to 20 feet of water. But the bulk of the treasure — including the queen's jewels, estimated to be worth close to $900 million — still hasn't been recovered.

Fisher earned the right to salvage the 1715 fleet after a 1982 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court gave him official admiralty custodianship of the wrecks, a right subcontractor Greg Bounds compares to registering a claim with the government to pan for gold.

Brisben declined to say how much he and his father paid for the salvage right; but he's serious about safeguarding his 300-square-mile stake, which extends from the low-tide mark into the ocean.

"People who might be considering 'pirating' artifacts from our claim should know that to do so is a federal offense," Brisben said.

Still, Bounds said, anyone who has serious treasure fever "can hunt on the beach all they want."

"The state gets 20 percent of the haul," Bounds said, "and gets to pick the pieces it wants first. The rest will be split 50-50 between the owners (the Brisbens) and the subcontractors who found it."

Brisben admitted he and his father, both experienced real estate developers in Cincinnati, are "neophyte treasure hunters."

"The treasure is the lure, but it's the history that's so fascinating," he said. "To be involved with the archaeological recovery of these treasures is the adventure of a lifetime and something we couldn't pass up."

Gold, silver from 1715 Spanish fleet found in shallow water off Treasure Coast 07/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 9:32pm]

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