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Squabble over underwater treasure trove

A priceless lost treasure is due to be lifted from the bottom of the sea. Having spent over two centuries underwater off the shores of Finland, the ship “Frau Maria” along with its priceless cargo is due to be lifted from its resting place on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

The Russian imperial riches are said to be the most important underwater discovery ever, presenting unprecedented historical and monetary value. Now the question stands of who will reap the benefits. Russia, Finland and The Netherlands all claim that the bounty should be theirs.

Its history is like an adventure novel. In 1771, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great ordered an extensive collection of art for her newly-founded Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. The Empress was fastidious in her choices and paid for them generously, yet she never saw the result of her efforts. Leaving Amsterdam, the ship encountered a storm, ran aground and sank near what is now Finland. The crew was saved, unlike the masterpieces, which were left in the vessel’s storage. Only in 1999 did Finnish divers come across the ship.

According to records, 27 paintings were onboard the ship, including previously unseen works by Rembrandt, van Goyen and other Dutch painters of the period. Experts say that the paintings were not severely harmed after spending all those years underwater. Before shipment, the canvases were put into lead containers with wax poured over the openings. In addition to the paintings, Frau Maria dragged away dozens of bronze sculptures, hundreds of porcelain objects as well as countless gold and silver coins. Art lovers around the world consider the collection to be priceless, while antiquarians give it the tag of 500 million to 1 billion euros.

The question now stands as to which country has the strongest claim for the treasures. The Finnish government asserts that the law is on its side. Indeed, according to a Finnish law, anything which spends more than 100 years on the bottom of its sea officially becomes its property. Nevertheless, matters are further complicated by the fact that the Russian Empire signed a deed buying all of the ship’s contents. Furthermore, at the time that the deeds were signed, Finland, including the location where the sunken ship now lies, was part of the Russian Empire. The Netherlands, from their part, suggest that the riches should be reaped by them, since “Frau Maria” is a Dutch ship.

However, the countries shouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch – the ship still needs to be hauled from the seabed first. Artyom Tarasov from the Russian charity organization “The Rescue of national cultural and historic valuables” says that exploring the ship’s bottom and the surrounding area will take up the whole of 2009. Then, a decision will have to be made on how to lift “Frau Maria” up from the seabed.

“We predict two possible scenarios. The first one is that the boat will be lifted up as a whole using special soft ropes made from artificial fibres so that the boardsides are not harmed. The second option is for divers to remove the valuables out from Frau Maria’s hold,” said Tarasov.

According to experts, unlike Jaques Yves Cousteau’s nautical missions which involved the swift lifting of objects from the bottom of the sea, the operation with “Frau Maria” needs more scientific planning. Russian representatives have said that the project should not be individualized, but rather considered pan-European and humanitarian and intended to benefit not only all the parties involved, but also, above everything else, world culture.

Russian engineers have pointed out that the Frau Maria could have been lifted as far back as nine years ago. However, intense negotiations are needed for the project to be conducted adequately. The Finnish government has even said that the Frau Maria may not see the light of day until 2018.

Sunken treasures around the world

The Caribbean is considered to be a true haven of lost treasure. Having once been the piracy capital of the world, the area is rich in sunken ships. And, whilst undoubtedly looting, the pirates still left most of the valuables onboard the sinking vessels.

It is therefore unsurprising that the most important underwater discovery of the 20th century was made in these waters.

Nuestra Señora de Atocha

A Spanish galley recovered from the ocean near Key West, Florida. The ship sank during a hurricane on September 6, 1622, bringing down with it over 40 tonnes of silver and gold: over 100,000 Spanish silver coins known as “Pieces of Eight”, gold coins, Columbian emeralds, silver and gold artifacts and over 1000 silver bars. The total value of the treasure is estimated at US$ 400 million, but it is suspected that a significant part of it still remains underwater.

Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion

This cargo galley was recovered by Bert Webber and Jim Huskins near the shores of Haiti. 32 tonnes of silver were lifted from the sea bed. They came in the shape of bars, coins, jewels and dishes.

Biggest treasure in history

In May 2007 an American company reported that it had discovered a treasure with an estimated value of over US$ 500 million. The riches lay onboard a medieval ship which found its final resting place on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. 500,000 gold and silver coins were transported to the shore, causing concern for the British government. They were based mostly on the fact that the company refused to provide details of the treasure’s exact location. Experts have since assumed that the origin of the riches was the vessel “Merchant Royal” which crashed during a storm in 1641.

…And in Russia

Most of Russia’s underwater riches are concentrated around the Gulf of Finland – there are over 6000 vessels resting in its depths. Being a key shipping route between the capital of the Russian Empire, St Petersburg, and other territories, it was inevitable that it would become a burial ground for cargo ships and their freights.

One of the most significant finds in the Gulf of Finland was made in 1999 by a group of amateur divers. They came across a cargo ship which had been carrying an artwork collection for Catherine the Great. Its main constituents were paintings by what are considered to be Rembrandt’s pupils as well as such important Dutch artists as Paulus Potter and Gerard Dou. Apart from artwork intended for the Hermitage museum, the cargo also contained items that the Russian aristocracy had ordered for private collections. Then, much like in the case with “Frau Maria”, there were severe negotiations between the Finnish and Russian governments over who should gain rights for the treasures. Then, the rights were passed on to the country, which made the discovery – Russia.

International worry

Multiple attempts to sign a global document, defining the status and ownership of treasures recovered from the sea depths, which have culminated with a document ratified by UNESCO in 2001. The paper is an amendment to the normal UNESCO portfolio dealing with the protection of cultural heritage. It places under protection all culturally and historically valuable items which have been underwater wholly or partially for 100 years at least. Furthermore, it forbids any commercial gain to be derived from the treasures.

There is, however, still no coordinated international agreement outlining which country should become the owner of particular underwater finds. It is tacitly accepted that whichever country’s waters are located within a 24 mile radius from the site claims ownership of the treasures. In some countries, the sunken vessel belongs to private people for the first 100 years since the disaster happened.


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