Two hundred and forty-three years ago today, on October 9, 1771, a Dutch sailing ship called the Vrouw Maria sank in the Baltic Sea off the southern tip of Finland. The Vruow Maria, a cargo ship, had already been fighting the sea and elements for six days, having run aground in a storm off the small desolate island of Jurno. The crew abandoned her and safely evacuated, but after they returned to the ship they tried to salvage her to no avail. On October 9 she lost the battle with the sea and sank beneath the waves. At the time, few people realized that she was a treasure ship, and the fabulous art objects she was secretly carrying were lost–almost, but perhaps not definitely, forever.
The story of the Vruow Maria begins with the death of one Gerrit Braamcamp, a wealthy Dutch timber merchant and art collector in Amsterdam. Braamcamp’s specialty was Old Masters paintings, and he owned a couple of Rembrandts. When he died in the summer of 1771 an auction was held of his major works. One of the buyers was a Russian agent representing Tsar Catherine the Great, who was on the lookout for artwork with which to decorate her lavish St. Petersburg palace, the Hermitage. On July 31, the agent bought a number of paintings including “Large Herd of Oxen” by Paulus Potter and “Woman at her Toilette” by Gerard ter Borch, both dating from the previous century. The paintings were crated up and loaded aboard the Vruow Maria along with various other merchant goods including coffee, ivory, furniture and silver. Although customs dues were paid on the merchant goods, the King of Holland allowed the art treasures to pass without a fee. This turned out to be an important detail. After the Vrouw Maria grounded on a rock and lost its rudder, crewmen tried to salvage some of the cargo, but the paintings were not among them.
Although no images or reproductions of the paintings Catherine bought have evidently survived, this is another work by artist Gerard ter Borch, one of the artists represented, called “The Letter.”
In 1772, a flurry of letters went back and forth among the Dutch, Russian and Swedish capitals talking about the lost paintings. (Finland, in whose territorial waters the Vruow Maria foundered, was then a possession of Sweden, a perennial enemy of Russia). There were various efforts discussed to get back Tsar Catherine’s paintings, but sea salvage technology was pretty limited in the 1770s so there wasn’t much they could do. Catherine and her Hermitage would just have to live without the paintings, which remained at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. But because some of those custom duties were waived–and hence the records that the paintings were even on board were thin–few people knew the truth about the Vruow Maria and its cargo. As years passed the lost treasure ship was forgotten.
In the 1970s, Christian Ahlström, a Finnish researcher, found documents pertaining to the Vruow Maria‘s precious cargo in the national archives of Sweden. This jump-started the search for the treasure, which began in 1979. After various failed attempts, in the late 1990s Ahlström teamed up with Rauno Koivusaari, an underwater explorer with a side-sonar array (the same sort of technology used to find the wreck of the TItanic in 1985). Because there were other wrecks down there in the same area, more library research was needed to figure out which one was the Vruow Maria. In 1999 the positive confirmation was made. The ship was lying on the bottom 41 meters below the surface. Astonishingly, the ship’s masts are still standing.
This artist’s conception shows the Vruow Maria as she is today, remarkably well preserved on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
The Baltic Sea is an area where the water is of generally low salinity. Consequently, shipwrecks there are much better preserved than in many other places around the world. The Vruow Maria is about 90% intact and the Finnish researchers documented it extensively with photos showing cargo crates still intact. Some of the cargo hatches are still yawning open, exactly as they were left by the crew that day in October 1771. The researchers also brought up a few artifacts, including an ingot of zinc, part of the valuable merchant cargo the ship was carrying. But they made no attempt to rescue the Old Masters paintings, whose location within the wreck is evidently uncertain. Logistical issues also make this a difficult and dangerous proposition. Since 1999, the wreck has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities, which prohibits dives or salvage attempts on the site. It is classified as a national treasure of Finland.
The big question: do Catherine’s priceless Dutch paintings still exist? Undoubtedly they do, but it’s unlikely the world would ever see them again as they existed in 1771. No one is sure exactly which crates inside the wreck contain the paintings or how they were packed. If, as researchers suspect, they were packed in crates with straw packing material, they would have become waterlogged immediately and the paint layers damaged. There’s a remote chance that they were either taken out of their frames and rolled up, or else packed in watertight lead containers, which would make a huge difference; but the surviving correspondence doesn’t mention these relatively unusual measures having been taken, so they probably weren’t.
The sad truth is that the paintings Catherine’s agent bought in Holland–some of the finest examples of Old Masters work from the 17th century, the apotheosis of Dutch art–are probably gone forever. The unlucky sinking of the Vruow Maria robbed the world of these treasures. All that remains, most likely, are some waterlogged boxes locked in the ghostly hull of a ship that never made its shore.