Family finds $1 million in gold in 300-year old Florida shipwreck

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

SEBASTIAN, Fla. -- The night before her treasure-hunting family discovered $1 million worth of Spanish gold off central Florida's Atlantic coast last month, Hillary Schmitt had a premonition they were going to find something big.

"I'm like, 'What is this feeling?'" Hillary Schmitt said Tuesday. "There was something that was telling me, shaking my shoulders, that 'You're going to find it. Tomorrow is your day. It's your birthday. You're going to find gold."

The next morning, she was on a boat about 1,000 feet off the coast of Fort Pierce when her brother, Eric, surfaced from a 12-foot dive with a gold coin in his hand. He went down again and came back with two more.

Over the course of the morning, the Schmitt family found 51 gold coins - including a rare 1715 "royal" intended for the king of Spain - and a 40-foot gold chain.

The discovery came within weeks of the 300th anniversary of the sinking of the 11-ship Spanish fleet off the Florida coast after getting caught in a hurricane during a voyage from Havana to Spain. The loss of the ships and as many as 1,000 lives was considered one of colonial Spain's biggest maritime disasters off Florida.

"To find a 1715 gold royal is incredible. There are only a handful that are even known," said Ben Costello, a director of the Pennsylvania-based educational group the 1715 Fleet Society. "To find it within a month of the 300th anniversary is almost religious. The odds of finding one are long indeed."

The Schmitt family - father Rick, mother Lisa, and siblings Eric and Hillary - have hunted treasure off Florida's coast for two decades. They previously discovered 50 feet of gold chain in 2013 as subcontractors for Queens Jewels, the salvage company that owns rights to the 1715 shipwreck site.

The $1 million estimate for the treasure is based on sales of similar coins in the past, Queens Jewels owner Brent Brisben said. He said the royal coin alone could be worth as much as $500,000.

For the time being, a federal court in South Florida has legal custody of the discovery. By the end of the year, with the court's approval, the state of Florida will get 20 percent of the value of the treasure to display in a museum after an inventory examination. The rest of the treasure will be split between Brisben's company and the Schmitt family.

The family now calls 22-year-old Hillary their "gold-luck charm." ''They always want me out on the water now," she said.

"People live all along this Treasure Coast, and they don't even know why it's called the Treasure Coast," she said. "They don't know that there's 11 ships out there, six of which are still missing."