My Treasure Story by Alex Kuze

One of the most iconic artifacts ever recovered from the wreck of the 1715 Fleet was not found through the efforts of a major salvaging company or by a well-known treasure hunter. Rather, it was found quite accidentally by a person who never even heard of the 1715 Fleet and whose main interest was surfing and sailing. Here is the amazing story of that incredible discovery by the person who likes to say “I did not find treasure, it found me.”

This the largest gold artifact ever found  from any of the Spanish Treasure Fleets. It is also unique.  I believe that it was commissioned by the Royal Spanish Court  because it is so unique in its form and function.  I also believe that it was made in China or the Philippines  since they were known for work with gold and silver. They had mastered the art of this kind of work using repousse and chasing.

In the basement of the Museum of Florida History lies one of the most valuable and unique artifacts that came off the wrecks on the Treasure Coast. It’s from a Fleet of Spanish Treasure ships that went down in a Hurricane on July 31,1715. Several stories have been written about “ a gold plate.” They range from close to the truth to almost fiction. This is why, 43 years after finding this artifact in 1977, I feel compelled to write the story myself.  It was June 1977. I was living in Cocoa Beach Florida. My favorite things to do were surfing and sailing. That month the ocean was the  flattest and calmest I had seen in a long time. The waters off Sebastian and Vero Beach looked like the waters in the Bahamas. That’s when my friends Jim Ryan and Randy Lathrop talked me into going diving in Vero Beach. It was also a good time to line up our spots for the upcoming lobster season. Randy and Jim were Certified dive instructors. I, however, had not been certified yet. The dive trip to Vero Beach was to be my 5th dive with scuba tanks.

On June 16, 1977 we drove down to Vero Beach in Jim’s Toyota pickup truck to one of several dirt road beach access points that were in the undeveloped part of the beach in Vero Beach.  In those days you could park on the top of the dune and walk down to the beach with all your dive gear. Soon after our entry into the water we came upon what was unmistakably a very large cannon 75 feet offshore in water no deeper than 8 feet.   I knew almost nothing about about  the history of the Treasure Coast.  Randy and Jim knew a little more about the subject.  Having found this cannon, we all decided to come  back to this place the next weekend. After all, we had jobs to get back to. During the week Randy and Jim looked into the history of the wrecks on the Treasure Coast and came the conclusion that we might be able find some other signs of a wreck. When we came back the following weekend, we had to make the decision to look either north or south of the place where we found the cannon. I can’t tell you who made the call to go north or south , Jim or Randy, but we went to the nearest dirt road north of the cannon site.   This dive we did was my 6th dive with scuba tanks . I was the least experienced of our group, so I lagged behind Jim and Randy, still getting used to the idea of diving with tanks. As we approached the top of the first reef off the beach,  I saw Jim and Randy pull away from me .  When I reached the top of the reef, I saw a flash of yellow. It came from a hole about 2 feet wide and about a foot deep. The object was half buried in sand. My first thought was that it was a piece of trash discarded from some boat. I decided to pick it up anyway. By this time Jim and Randy had turned around to see where I was , as I kicked towards them, I saw Randy’s eyes light up. We all swam to the surface and it was then when we realized what we had. We were ecstatic. We had found this in less than 10 feet of water and 50 yards off the beach. This was nothing like you see in the movies or read about in books.  The first person to see our treasure was some unsuspecting hitchhiker that we flashed with the gold plate on our way home to Cocoa Beach. Even now I amuse myself wondering what that hitchhiker thought.

After the find, we struggled with what to do with this artifact. One thing we suspected was that this was truly unique among all the 1715 Fleet Treasure. We finally decided to see an attorney to negotiate a deal with the State of Florida. Ultimately, we wanted to get the rights to the treasure site . That did not happen because The Real Eight Corporation had rights to this site going back to the 1960’s.  Instead  the State of Florida said they would trade some gold coins that they had acquired from their percentages of previous salvers in the area.  They said the plate was worth $ 25,000  and they would trade 50% of that value in coins.  It was a take it or leave it proposition . The State of Florida alluded to the fact that there were people in Tallahassee that did not want to give us anything for it.  We took the deal.  We split  $12,500 dollars’ worth of coins 4 ways. The attorney got 1 part of our take.  In 1988 a gold chalice from the same area sold for $ 260,000.  Since then I’ve heard estimates from people in the business that it would probably go in auction for  millions of dollars.

This was my end of the deal, a one of kind artifact worth probably millions of dollars for a coin that I sold for $ 3500.00 . In the 40 something years since the find I have never heard one  person say that they would have done what we did. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me why we didn’t keep it or try to sell it. What people don’t realize is that back in 1977 there was no way to sell this kind of object for all this money that it is worth now.  In order to sell it you have to provide provenance or we’ll get nothing more than the melt down value of the gold. Melting it down never occurred to us. We knew that this was something truly rare and unique. It would be like destroying a Picasso so you could sell the frame.  The one thing that Jim, Randy and I had in common was that we appreciated art and history and we wanted the world to see this fantastic piece of art. We were just hoping that we would have been treated better for doing the right thing.

After we made the deal with the State of Florida, I got word that a California company, called The Quest Corporation, was looking for divers to work on some wreck sites off Sebastian and Vero Beach .  It turned out that one of the sites was  in the location where we found the plate. I got the job and then later got Jim and Randy a job to work there as well. We thought that it would be great to work on that very site where we found the plate.

To our disappointment  the president of  Quest Corporation , Chuck Kenworthy, had little interest in working that area. They had taken this site as part of a package deal with the State of Florida . They felt that the “Mother Lode” of treasure was north of Sebastian.   This was extremely disappointing to us as we felt that we were on the right track. It turns out we were right to be disappointed because exactly 300 years to the day,  the 1715 Queens Jewels Corporation really hit it big finding $4,500,000.00 worth of treasure in the same area where we found the plate.  They found their treasure in the deep sand in front of the same reef where we found our plate.

My primary interest in revisiting this episode is to correct some of the misinformation about this gold plate . When we made the deal with the State of Florida in 1978, the state’s archaeologist Sonny Cockrell thought it might be a glove tray. When the Museum of Florida History put the plate on display, they labeled it as a glove tray. For the next 38 years it was known as such. It was mentioned in magazines and books  as a glove tray. When the curator from Spain visited the Museum of  Florida several years ago, he thought that it was a Mancerina or cocoa pot tray.  When I heard about this, I did some research on the subject. As soon as I saw what a cocoa pot tray looked like I knew they were wrong. In fact, The State of Florida Museum started calling it that. They told someone who was putting a book together for the 300th Anniversary that it was called a “Cocoa Pot Tray”. Having handled this object I knew that the center of the object was too rough and too irregular to hold any kind of pot. Having a pedestal would make it impossible to hold any cups at all. The top of the tray was a lot larger than the pedestal . The idea of it being a Mancerina was also wrong. The first Mancerina was designed for the Viceroy in Colombia who had palsy and had trouble keeping his cup in the saucer. This obviously would not work for the same reasons as the cocoa pot tray.  I soon realized that we did not know for sure what it was.

 

At this point in my life I would like to find out more about this plate. It’s been in Tallahassee for 42 years and we don’t know anything more about it now than when we first turned it over to the archaeologists in Tallahassee. One thing I know for sure, it’s unique among the 1715 or any other Spanish treasure.   It was made from several flat pieces of gold , hammered out from the back. The creases and deep relief gave the gold its rigidity, much like when you put a crease or bend to any metal to make it rigid. This why when I handled the gold plate it was relatively light for it size 9.5 inches by 7 inches. It weighed 17 troy ounces. The base  and top were put together with gold rivets and covered up by a small flower in the center.  The detail in this artifact is amazing and must have required great skill  and technique.  There is a mark on the underside of the pedestal which could be a hallmark. There is also a stamped mark on the edge of the topside. These are possible clues as to when it was made, where it was made and who made it.  The overall look of the  plate is like a sunflower, the flower motifs on the inside are likely sunflowers. This brings us to the subject of sunflowers. When Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in 1506, he noticed that Inca worshiped sunflowers. In the 1500’s sunflower seeds found their way to Spain via Mexico.  By 1715 sunflowers were found all over Spain and Europe . They had special significance and almost mystical  powers.  Sunflowers face towards the sun and follow the sun as it moves across the sky during the day.  This is why I believe that this “ Gold Plate” was so special and most certainly was meant to go to the Royal Family and possibly  for the Queen of Spain , Maria Luisa of Savoy ,who unfortunately died in February of 1714.

This gold artifact needs to have a lot more research done on it, not because I found it ,but because of how unique it is among all the finds coming from  the wreck sites of the Spanish treasure fleets. It has a story to tell. There are many clues that need to be explored. The stamped mark on the side, the possible hallmark on the  underside, the sunflower motif. Sunflowers were very special by the 1700’s all over the world and especially in Europe. To this day sunflowers have special meanings in our culture. The Monet paintings of sunflowers are some of most valuable in the art world today. This object took  a lot of skill, time and technology to make and the fact that it was made of gold gives it great importance .

Recently my research has revealed that the original idea that this was a glove tray was correct as first thought. In fact, I found two examples of glove trays made in France. The first one is now at the Louvre Museum. It is quite elaborate; it dated from the 1650 s and according to information from the museum it was made for a member of the  royal family, since gloves were customarily presented to an aristocratic lady on her engagement. [1]  The second one is now at The Metropolitan  Museum of Art in New York; it dates from 1723-1724. Both these glove trays were made from silver which gives a special meaning to the one I found which was made from 17 ounces of  almost pure gold. I hope to find who commissioned this special glove tray.  At this point I remind the reader that King Philip and Queen Maria Luisa were actually French born and were entrusted with the Spanish throne because the previous king had no successors.

The 11 ships of the Spanish treasure fleet that were lost in a hurricane off  the east central coast of Florida in 1715 were loaded down with treasure from all over the world… China, The Philippines, Central America,  South America and Mexico.

The Myth of the Queens Jewels

The 1977 movie, The Deep, perpetuated a myth that still exists today in the 1715 Fleet treasure hunting community. In the movie, Jacqueline Bisset’s character is looking for the provenance of a treasure she and her partner found while scuba diving in Bermuda. She comes across an account about the soon to become Queen of Spain, Elizabeth Farnese. In the account Elizabeth demands that she receive an assortment of jewels before the marriage can be consummated. King Phillip V apparently agreed to the terms and ordered craftsman from as far away as China and Manila to assemble jewelry from gold, silver and precious stones of which no queen had ever seen. This closely followed the story that Dr. Kelso relayed in the book “Pieces of  Eight”  by Kip Wagner. There are many problems with this story line. If King Philip had ordered these jewels from as far away as China, there simply would not have been time to accomplish this.

The problem is the timeline. Philip V’s first wife, Maria Luisa of Savoy, died February 14, 1714.  Philip V was distraught over her death to the point where he had to be torn from her death bed. He barely could function thereafter and the Madame des Ursins and Cardinal Alberoni ran the country. These two individuals were the ones who arranged to bring Elizabeth Farnese to the Spanish throne to marry Philip.  On June 10, 1714 it was decided that she would be the next Queen of Spain. King Philip agreed to this and they were married by proxy in September 1714. The marriage was consummated on Christmas Eve 1714. This runs contrary to the narrative that she would not consummate the marriage until she received her “Queen’s Jewels”.

Queen Elizabeth gave birth to their first son Charles on January 16, 1716.  This meant that the Queen was in her second trimester of pregnancy when the Spanish Plate Fleet sank off the east coast of Florida on July 31.1715.

This fact was presented to me by a friend of mine, Cheryl Bartozek in an article she wrote awhile back called “ Consort Queen Elizabeth of Spain and Modern Misinterpretations Revealed”. It did not get much attention and people were still writing and talking about the deal that Queen Elizabeth made for the consummation of her marriage.  That’s why I am giving it the attention it needs. It is easy to assume that if something is written in a book or article that it must therefore be true. Sometimes, however, that is not the case. Contradictions can exist that are simply overlooked. That is what Cheryl pointed out in her article. King Philip’s son was born on January 16, 1716.  By doing the math the conclusion is obvious. She was pregnant by July 31,1715 the day the fleet sank!

My Surreal Encounter with Ubilla

Capt. General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla led a group of five out of twelve ships from the Spanish Plate Fleet that left Havana Cuba on July 24,1715. The fleet, loaded with treasure, was headed back to Spain to save the country’s economy. The ships encountered a hurricane off of the east coast of Florida resulting in the destruction of the entire fleet between Cape Canaveral and Jupiter Florida. Most of the ships went down in what we now call the “Treasure Coast” which includes of the counties Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin. It believed that Capt. Ubilla’s flagship sank somewhere between Vero Beach and Sebastian and that’s where he perished along with 1200 or more people.

The beach where I found the gold tray is commonly known as Corrigan’s wreck site. This site is now the location of the Carlton Condominiums. When I dove this area back in 1977, along with my partners Jim Ryan and Randy Lathrop, there was nothing there except a dirt road and a desolate beach. After 1977 the three of us got jobs diving for various treasure salvaging companies one of which was the reorganized Real Eight Company, the original treasure salvage group that first worked these wrecks back in the sixties. They were part of the reason why this place got the name “Treasure Coast”. I moved from Cocoa Beach to Fort Pierce to be near these treasure sites and also because my construction jobs were in this area. The three of us for the next five years worked the seasonal treasure salvage business. During the off season we all went back to our regular jobs. After five years or so we left the treasure salvage business never having been able to top our first success.Then in the year 2000 Jim Ryan and I were sent to do some high-end woodwork at the Carlton Condominiums in Vero Beach. This was the same beach where we found our treasure back in 1977. Now we both had to stare at the very beach where the largest gold artifact ever found off any Spanish treasure wreck was recovered.  This was also where hundreds of dead bodies washed up on the beach 285 years ago. This was probably the area where Capt. Ubilla met his doom. However, that was not the only surreal thing that happened that day. What occurred next was right out of the twilight zone. Jim Ryan and I were working on one of the units running trim. I had to get something out of the truck and leave the room. When I came back, I saw a Stanley 25- foot tape measure with a missing label on it. On it was written the name Ubilla. I thought Jim was messing with me. I picked up the tape and questioned him about it. He was bewildered, as he thought I was messing with him. About that time a worker that was installing granite came over to the both of us and said that it was his tape measure and that his name was Ubilla. I think I said something like are you kidding? Then he showed me his business card and sure enough it was his name. I felt like I was dreaming.             Not only did he have the last name of the Captain who probably died nearby,  he had my full first name Alexander (Spanish version). The name Ubilla is a very uncommon name. So this made it very bizarre to say the least. At this point I tried to explain to Alejandro that one of his namesakes had probably died somewhere on this beach 285 years ago along with the sinking of the Spanish Plate Fleet. He knew nothing about the fleet even though the place we live in is known as the Treasure Coast. Alejandro was like most of the people that live here.  I have even asked people that have the Treasure Coast in their company name if they knew the origin of that name and they did not know for sure. So, this was no surprise . I suggested that if Alejandro did not believe me to check out the two museums we have in the area. One of them being the McLarty Museum in Sebastian, which is several miles down the road. The other would be the Mel Fisher Museum also in Sebastian. The whole time I was trying to explain this he had that bewildered look in his face . I do not know if he ever checked this out or not.

However, that was not the end of the Ubilla saga . It seemed like it would not let me go. Sure enough, 15 years later it came up again. This time during the 300th Anniversary of the Spanish Treasure Fleet disaster. Indian River magazine wrote a 10-page article on how our coastline became the Treasure Coast. It had lots of pictures of treasure, maps , charts and diagrams. One of the best articles I’ve ever seen about the Treasure Coast . At the end of this article it had a full-page ad for Real Stone and Granite . It included  a small picture of Jose D. Ubilla. In this 10-page article the name Ubilla was brought up numerous times. I naturally assumed that this ad was placed there on purpose. Once again, I have to reiterate that Ubilla is not a common name. When I contacted Jose D. Ubilla and went to meet him , he did not know anything about the article or Captain Ubilla. Once again, I had to explain myself and lent him some of my books about the Spanish Treasure Fleet.

I came back two weeks later to get my books back and to see his reaction. He told me that he immigrated from Nicaragua because of the revolution that took place back in the 1960s. He moved his family to Miami and started a successful stone and granite business. They started to get a large amount of work in the Vero Beach area, specifically Johns Island, so much so that they moved their families and business to Fort Pierce, which is about 40 or so minutes away from Vero Beach. One of their big jobs was the Carlton Condominiums. Little did they know that Corrigan’s Wreck site was where one of their namesakes possibly died some 300 years before.

Prior to my visit I had done some preliminary research about the Ubilla name and found that its origin was in a part of northern Spain not far from the French border.  Some of the people with that name immigrated to Nicaragua and Cuba in the 17th and 18th century. Whether or not Alejandro or Jose are descendants of Captain General Ubilla has yet to be determined. But it does not matter to me. It is the fact that their name keeps coming up and results in my renewed interest in this that matters. These coincidences are just too bizarre to ignore. The Ubilla name is an uncommon name that makes the situation so unique.

The effect that Ubilla  had on my life cannot be overstated. What he did back in the year 1715 had a direct effect on me (along with countless others). I just found out recently from a friend of mine, Jorge Proctor, that the Spanish Plate Fleet left Havana Cuba two days later than scheduled. It seems that Captain Ubilla had severe stomach problems. This means that the whole scenario could have been different. The fleet could have missed the hurricane or at the very least ended up in a different area during the storm. Either way my whole life would have been different, And I would not be writing this story right now. Sometimes it seems like I did not find treasure, but it found me. After finding that gold tray I started my short five-year treasure salvage career. As I mentioned before, I had moved from Cocoa Beach to Fort Pierce to work for the Real Eight Company.  It’s there where I bought a house, got married and where my daughter Stacey was born. Life is really strange that way .

Here I am at the 300th  Anniversary of the sinking of the Spanish Plate Fleet with my daughter Stacey Kuze and renowned treasure salvor John Brandon. This would have never happened if Captain General Ubilla had not experienced severe digestion problems that delayed the launch of the Spanish Fleet.

305th Anniversary and More Coincidences

Jim Wilson invited me, along with some other people, to commemorate the 305th Anniversary of the sinking the Spanish Plate Fleet. Jim had done this since the 300th Anniversary.  This consisted of placing a red rose and saying a prayer at each recovery site along the beach from Sebastian to Fort. Pierce. On these beaches more than a thousand people lost their lives along with sinking of the fleet. One can imagine what that scene must have looked like 305 years ago with dead bodies littering the beach and 1500 survivors fighting the elements to stay alive.

On the morning of July 31, 2020, I met Jim Wilson and Candi Lynn Nichols on the beach at the site of the Cabin Wreck in Sebastian. The three of us were the only ones that showed up even though others were invited. For Candi and I this was our first time for this event. The three of us visited the other sites that morning.

The fourth site we visited was the Corrigan’s Wreck site in Vero Beach . This is where we found that gold glove tray in 1977.  This was also the very same location where John Brandon’s crew found a gold cup and gold coins in 1985.  Other items have been found in that area in the years that followed. This was also a favorite area for metal detecting. One of the biggest and most famous finds occurred on the 300th Anniversary of the loss of the 1715 Fleet. Queens Jewels, LLC found $4,500,000.00 in gold coins very close to the area where we found the glove tray.

At Corrigan’s Wreck Site I placed a red rose into the sand and next to it a likeness of the glove tray. Jim Wilson said a prayer to honor all those that died on that beach 305 years ago. That being done Candi headed back home and Jim and I did the remaining sites.

Later that evening Candi sent me some of her pictures of that day together with some other images. The last two pictures were historical. Candi had been on Danny Porter’s salvage vessel a while ago and they were working the Corrigan’s Wreck site. That day they had found part of K’ang-his porcelain plate. One of the pictures that Candi had sent me clearly showed the same type of flower and design that was on the gold tray. I literally got chills when I saw it. I passed that information onto Candi and Jim the next day. I also sent the picture to my friend Allen Balogh (author of “Black Sails 1715”). He called it historical. That’s when I knew I finally had that China connection. Candi’s picture validated it.  The Chinese at this time excelled in goldsmithing using the Chasing Repousse method.

I had been looking for years for something to resemble the way the flowers were drawn, and this was it. The stalks and the leaves with the rounded ends where especially telling.

That necklace with the pottery shard around Candi’s neck could be from that same plate except it was bought from Jonah Martinez, another treasure hunter, four years before. Another strange coincidence, that Candi would be on that boat the day Danny Porter’s group found that porcelain.

However, that was not the end of these strange coincidences. The day that Candi was on board Danny Porters salvage vessel they also found a gold coral encrusted top to a jewelry box. When the top was cleaned several weeks later it had an engraving of St. Gabriel with his finger pointing up to the heavens. Candi found out about this weeks later. It turns out that Candi had a tattoo of St. Gabriel on her shoulder that looked very similar . She had gotten that tattoo eight or more years earlier. She had been at the library in Syracuse New York and obtained a Xerox copy of the image from a bible at that school. This was used by her tattoo artist.

My Quest for the History of the Glove Tray

The more research I do on this subject the more I’m convinced that this gold tray could be the most important find from the 1715 Treasure Fleet. The most obvious thing is the size of the object, 9 ½” by 7”. Nothing that has been found thus far even comes close . This includes other Spanish treasure wrecks found in the “New World”. One does not make something this big out of almost pure gold unless it’s  something of real importance.  The numerous glove trays that I found in my research were made of lesser materials, like silver, crystal and semi-precious stones. As I mentioned before, glove trays were used in France when an aristocratic Lady was presented  gloves at the time of her engagement. Since King Phillip V of Spain was the grandson of Louis XIV of France all customs and traditions went along with that. King Phillip’s first Queen was from an area of Italy that followed these customs. In fact, the whole Royal Court of Spain was actually French in origin. Spanish was not even spoken; they spoke French entirely. This is probably why the war of Spanish Succession lasted fourteen years. The English felt that Spain was too close to the French Monarchy and its dominance of Europe.

The reason footed server trays and glove trays were used was so that there was no direct contact between the King and Queen and servants. As in most monarchies in Europe the nobility felt  that they were granted divine rights by the Church and God. This was the key to their power over the common people in that era.

When King Louis XIV of France died in 1715, Phillip V of Spain inherited some items of which were various trays and footed servers of some which were glove trays. They were made from a combination of crystal and silver and gold , none of which were made from almost solid gold. That’s why I believe this gold glove tray had to be something special, used for special ceremonies and not for everyday use.

One of the key reasons why I think this “ Gold Glove Tray” is so special is that there has never been anything coming out of the New World and Far East that resembles this object in any way.  The overall design of the tray in all likelihood  is European. However, it was crafted most likely in China. A lot of the footed servers that were in France and Spain were made in Milan Italy because that where most of the skilled craftsman  and designers were at the time. The Spanish Inquisition instituted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1478, forced Jews and Muslims to exit Spain. These groups included artisans and craftsman who made jewelry and other works of art. The practical result of this was that Spain had virtually no specialists available to make these objects. As such, they had to rely on other parts of the world to provide these luxuries made with the gold and silver acquired from the New World.

The thing I would like to find the most is the documentation for this artifact.  The reason I believe that there might be some chance of finding this documentation is because this item was designed for a very specific use or ceremony. I believe that it was probably crafted in China and the design had to have some kind of direction from the Royal Court. The fluted pedestal  has characteristics that one might see in Greco-Roman fluted columns. I have yet to see this in any oriental design.  However, the top part of tray has a lot of  Oriental design features especially on some of the scroll work in the inner ring.

The foliate scroll work in the center of the ring looks very similar to some of the gold work Chinese artisans did at the time. Chinese pottery, jewelry, silver and goldsmith work of this era was some of the most sought-after artwork in Europe, especially by royalty.

The French and Spanish Royalty used footed servers so that the servants would never actually touch the items they where presenting to the Royals, especially to the King and Queen. They, with the blessing of the Church, considered themselves to be ruling by divine right. Many of the glove trays of that period were made of lesser materials. This “Gold Glove Tray” was the only one of its kind any where that I know of. Louis XIV of France (Philip V’s grandfather) did not have one in his possession. One would think that he would own something like this inasmuch as he was known as the “Sun King” and loved sunflowers and gold in the extreme. This why I would not exclude that this “Gold Glove Tray” might be something that could have been meant for him . In any case,  I believe that this was commissioned by someone for a special purpose and there might be some documentation establishing this that is yet to be discovered.

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