четверг, 20 ноября 2008 г.

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 organisation "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 individualised, 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.

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