The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck

Written by Mara Vorhees
Review by Misty Urban

This exquisitely researched, enthralling book tells the story of the loss and rediscovery of the Vrouw Maria, a Dutch merchantman that sank in Finnish waters in 1771 carrying, among other treasures destined for the court of Catherine the Great, Gerrit Dou’s triptych The Nursery, the single most valuable artwork of the Golden Age.

The book balances illuminating attention to all three of the subjects in its subtitle. Historical sections examine the life and work of Rembrandt’s pupil, Gerrit Dou, along with the career of the ambitious Russian empress. Like the Dutch masters they describe, the authors demonstrate a meticulous eye for detail, down to how Dou prepared his paints, along with a succinct grasp of the busy backdrops of Dutch capitalism, the Russian court, and European art history. The authors have a knack for dramatic scene with truly standout moments in the sinking of the ship; the auction at which a canny Catherine’s operatives steal their greatest treasures from under the noses of her European rivals; and the expedition of 1999, led by Rauno Koivusaari, that discovered the Vrouw Maria, the most fabled wreck of Finnish history.

The tale in its final chapters turns to bureaucratic farce as the authors account for the Finnish government’s determination to keep the wreck in situ without attempting to retrieve its cargo, nor allowing anyone else access. While the authors confess a keen interest in what the Vrouw Maria might still hold—this reviewer shares that wish—their reporting is balanced and their research thorough. The writing is thoroughly gripping, the prose style sure and sound. The combined romance of the ambitious empress, the fate and forays of great art, and the joys of maritime archaeology make this an inspiring, completely riveting read.