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The hunt for Catherine the Great’s shipwreck treasure|BCI GREECE


Treasure hunting in the 21st century

In October 1771, a merchant ship out of Amsterdam, the Vrouw Maria, crashed off the stormy Finnish coast, taking her historic cargo to the depths of the Baltic Sea. The vessel was delivering a dozen Dutch masterpiece paintings to Europe’s most voracious collector: Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. The Vrouw Maria became a maritime legend, confounding would-be salvagers for more than two hundred years. In 1999, the daring Finnish wreck hunter Rauno Koivusaari set out to find it with his team, the Pro Vrouw Maria Association. Midsummer is the time of year when Finns get in touch with their inner pagan. Before the encroachment of Christianity, summer solstice was the high holiday of the northern Baltic. White night revels involved spring potato picnics, fermented beverage consumption, and naked dance parties (at least two of these rituals are still widely practiced). The solstice signaled the transition from spring sowing to summer growing, and the critical interlude for appeasing nature’s fickle spirits, whose mystic powers and mischievous penchants were enhanced during the midnight sun. Large bonfires were lit on midsummer’s eve to frighten off ill-tiding phantoms, who might otherwise spoil the harvest or burn down a barn. Young maidens, meanwhile, delicately tucked seven wild flowers, picked from seven meadows, under their pillow, in hopes of seeing their future mate revealed in a dream. Along Finland’s west coast and throughout the islands, revelers erected long-limbed maypoles, decorated with spruce garlands, flower-woven wreaths, and jangly trinkets. Looking like a boa-clad ship’s mast, archipelago maypoles protected fishermen and sailors against the Baltic’s spiteful water demons. Rauno chose midsummer as the launch date for Pro Vrouw Maria’s expedition. From his many years in the archipelago, he observed that the sea was uncharacteristically placid during the fortnight which followed summer solstice. Under the best circumstances, the team would have only two weeks to find and survey the wreck. He hoped to avoid the diver’s bane of bad weather and rough water.

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