Billion euro sunken masterpieces

November 20th, 2008

In 1771, the schooner Frau Maria sank near Finland while it was transporting treasures for the Hermitage Museum purchased at an auction in Amsterdam for Catherine the Great. After its rediscovery in 1991, archival research has turned up papers concerning the auction which reveal that onboard were 27 works by the Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Hendrick Van Balen, Gerrit Terborch (perhaps Vermeer’s most talented colleague) and Jan Van Goyen.

Amazing as it may seem, experts hope the paintings were packed into special lead containers coated with wax for the overseas voyage making it theoretically possible that the canvases might survive in good shape. The Russian imperial riches are said to be the most important underwater discovery ever, presenting unprecedented historical and monetary value. Antiquarians give it the tag of 500 million to 1 billion euros. The Frau Maria will be will be raised to the surface in 2010 but the issue of ownership contended by Russia and Finland has not been settled as yet.

Russia Today

One Response to “Billion euro sunken masterpieces”

  1. ARech

    A few additions to this probably most precious cargo in the history of underwater archaeology:

    The assumption that the 27 Dutch paintings could have been transported in leaden containers sealed with wax stems from several, unfortunately vain expeditions, attended by correspondence with Swedish authorities Catharina the Great sent within three years after the ship’s disappearance in October 1771, due to a heavy storm.
    The ship’s body seems still remarkably well-preserved (see an image here):

    Salvage specialists from Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands suggested to raise the ship by slipping special soft ropes beneath the body, which will then be brought to dry dock. The two years until the planned raising in 2010 are necessary for exact measuring of the ship and the study of the specifics of the seabed around and afterwards working out en exact plan for the raise.

    According to the British newspaper ‘The Daily Telegraph’ it is not yet clear whether Russia would be able to claim the goods although the whole country is legally entitled to all the property that once belonged to the Russian Empire. As various European countries are involved in the project there could also be a chance of sharing the ownership with the European Community.

    But the optimism of the Russian authorities even regarding the salvage of the precious Dutch paintings is not shared by everyone. Finish officials estimate the likelihood that the treasures could be preserved with c. one percent. But nevertheless they offer any support in raising the ship.

    The costs of the entire project is estimated c. 50 million Euros.

    As a very great lover of Dutch 17th century art, I do hope, of course, that this unique project will have any success it deserves. But remembering the remaining artefacts from the famous MSS ‘Titanic’, sunk in 1912 ‘only’ 3800 meters, I saw in a large exhibition 1997 in Hamburg, I have serious doubts, considering the length of time (240 years!) and the depth of the schooner’s location (41 meters) resting in the icy water of the Finish sea. But, as the saying goes, “Hope springs eternal”.


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