In 1771 the Dutch Snauw Vrouw Maria Sank in what is today Finnish waters. Among its cargo were paintings from famous Southern and Northern painters like Gerard Dou. These were bought by the Tsarina Catherina the Great from Russia on an auction in Amsterdam. The paintings had belonged to a famous art collector Gerrit Braamkamp.
The wreck of Vrouw Maria has been found in 1999.
The Dutch government has not claimed any rights on the ownership of the wreck, since it has been owned by a private person and not the state. Also, the Netherlands trust in the good fathership of the Finnish government for this object of mutual heritage. The Fins claim the ownership of the site: the ship and its content.
The Russians point to the fact that the paintings were bought by their Tsarina and therefore are also part of their heritage. The collection of the Tsarina has formed the basis for the Hermitage.
Instead of trying to solve ownership through court, it was decided that the countries involved would start discussions on how to proceed with the site. The aim is to set up a project that would fill the expectations and needs of the different parties. It is agreed that the Vrouw Maria is an object of cultural historical significance and therefore should be treated in that way. Interference with the site has to be done according to the general agreed codes of good practices like those formulated in the Annex of the Unesco Convention from 2001 on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
One idea that has come up is to raise the ship and its content in order to find out also more about the paintings.
We know that some paintings were salvaged right after the wreckage and that these were packed in wooden boxes. If this is also the case with the ones still in the wreck, then there is a real chance those paintings are in extremely bad condition, if not lost forever. However, as the Russian partner in the negotiation said; “the glass can be half full or half empty” ….it is better to look at the positive side. There is indeed a chance some things can be found and restored.
If the ship is going to be raised, then this has to be accompanied with archaeological research. Therefore it has been agreed that working groups of experts will be established to investigate the following topics:
- To establish an archaeological research framework and plan
- To investigate the influence of this possible project on the natural environment (Vrouw Maria is laying in a Natura 2000 area)
- To investigate the possibilities for raising (the Russians already worked out a few plans)
- To investigate the methods of conservation.
When these working groups have drawn up their ideas and plans, the steering group consisting of Finnish, Russian, Dutch and Swedish representatives, will be coming together again to decide on the direction to follow.
This process of discussion and negotiation is unique in the field of cultural heritage and proofs that all parties are very much focussed on finding a way to co-operate together in the Vrouw Maria project with the aim to find the best solution for shipwreck, cargo and the interests of the several involved countries, scientists and general public.
Divers by the bow of the wreck. Photo by Jouni Polkko
An 18th century Snauw