MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia has laid claim to Catherine II's collection of precious objects found in a 1771 shipwreck near the Finnish coast, the president of Russia's cultural heritage foundation said Tuesday.
"All cargo found in a sunken ship must be returned to its owner, if the owner has not abandoned it, according to international law," Artem Tarassov said at a press conference.
"And Catherine the Great was far from abandoning it, contrarily she lobbied for two years in (then Finnish territory) Sweden to begin the process of refloating," added Tarassov, who investigated the shipwreck for several years.
Since 2007, Russia and Finland have argued over who is entitled to the ship's treasures, after it was discovered 41 metres (135 feet) undersea in the ship's wreckage by a Finnish diver in 1999.
Frau Maria was heading to Saint Petersburg in October 1771 when it sank. It contained 30 paintings by famous Dutch artists including Gerard ter Borch, Hendrick van Balen, Jan van Goyen, Gabriel Metsu and Gerard Dou.
In its hold, according to experts, were precious stone jewels and a porcelain collection, bought at an Amsterdam auction, on the orders of Catherine II who wanted to enrich her collection at the Winter Palace.
Specialists believe the paintings were well preserved, thanks to its tin tube containers sealed with paraffin wax.