The Abbatucci Cargo
"Intelligence has been received of the loss of the steam packet General Abbatucci. A French Intendant General, the Pontifical Consul at Marseilles, 16 French soldiers and 15 Papal recruits, on their way to Civitavecchia, have perished... "
On the 7th May 1869 The General Abbatucci sank in tragic circumstances. She had left her home port of Marseilles the previous day on a routine monthly run to Civitavecchia, Italy, but on this trip, as well as the normal trade shipments, she was said to have been carrying a much more exciting cargo. It was thought to have consisted of several million French francs destined for the Vatican, gifts for the birthday of Pope Pius IX from Church officials in France, and possible pay for the French army in Italy.
Her passengers included many powerful dignitaries and wealthy merchantmen, some with their families, a group of Pontifical guards, and the Pontifical Consul representing the Holy See in Marseilles, who was returning to Rome.
Sadly this particular voyage was to be short-lived, during the early hours of the morning the 282-ton 12 year old ship was involved in a collision 24 miles off the north Corsican coast. The Edward Hwidt, a 500-ton Norwegian barquentine, holed The General Abbatucci below her starboard anchor, she took on water at great speed and sank within two hours of being hit, with the loss of 54 lives. The newspapers were full of survivors' tales of the futile attempts made by panic-stricken noblemen to buy their safety by casting their valuables at the feet of the crew, but little could be done and for many, their fates were sealed. The Times reported "The Captain and 54 persons were saved, and have been brought to Leghorn almost naked, the accident having happened early in the morning, when most of them were in their berths. Several sailors and a much larger number of passengers were lost".
Shortly after she sank her captain and the survivors were picked up by the sailing vessel The Embla, which also escorted the damaged Edward Hwidt to the Italian coast of Livorno. An inquiry held by the Italian maritime judges ruled that The General Abbatucci was negligent for failing to keep a proper lockout, and the captain of The Edward Hwidt was penalised for leaving the scene of the incident without making any attempt to pick up survivors.
The rumour of the existence of Papal gifts was reinforced by the behaviour of the guards and the Consul who remained on the ship, making no attempt to save themselves.
The General Abbatucci and her secrets lay untouched on the seabed until she was located in May 1996, nearly 127 years after her tragic end.
It took Blue Water Recoveries Ltd 32 days of searching before they finally found the wreck they were looking for, scanning over 1000 square miles plagued by bad weather and unpredictable currents - attested to by the numerous other wrecks discovered during the search.
On the 19th May 1996 the latest wreck discovered was inspected by a remote operated vehicle with colour and wide angle black and white cameras. It bore no resemblance to the artist's impression of what they thought they would find; 127 years on the seabed had taken its toll.
The metal hull had long since rusted away leaving the huge single engined boiler exposed in the centre of the wreck. The sides of the ship had fallen outwards, collapsing to reveal the skeletal remains of the hull.
Once the age had been ascertained by the careful examination of surrounding artefacts, a more detailed search was made in order to establish the wreck's identity.
The first pieces of porcelain examined proved to be disappointing as it was cargo destined for Italy and not the ship's china which would bear the company crest for Valery, Freres & Fils and provide a positive identification. Some time later during the survey, the wreck still not having been positively identified, a severe problem developed with the remote operated vehicle - its sonar equipment, essentially its "eyes" failed. The weather on the surface was forecast to blow for two days, which would mean a further excruciating delay before the vehicle could get back on the wreck. With the sort of luck that is only found at sea, and then only rarely, the ship's compass binnacle was sighted lying on the seabed, just a few feet in front of the vehicle's camera, having been torn from the deck as the ship plummeted to the seabed 127 years previously. The binnacle was grabbed with the ROV manipulator arm and slowly raised to the surface on to the deck of the search vessel. Details had been obtained of the original equipment supplied to the vessel and the name of the manufacturer of the compass was known.
Unfortunately, when the revolving compass card was rinsed, a different name was revealed, much to the dismay and bitter disappointment of the search team. Their spirits rose, however, when a short time later there came an excited cry from the team member cleaning the body of the compass - he had discovered the sought after name on its base. This was the proof they required and the full recovery operation began. The next group of crockery examined was found to bear the company logo, the excitement mounted as much of the wreck's cargo was brought to the surface. The results were mixed. The expected main cargo of gold was not found but jewellery, watches and coins were recovered from a depth of over 8000 feet. Time ran out and it was decided to leave the remainder of the elusive cargo for another day.
When the jewellery was first brought into Christie's - Christies Auctioneers, it was almost impossible to recognise and only professional cleaning has revealed its true glory. Nearly all of the jewellery has now been cleaned, and the transformation is unbelievable, but a few lots have been kept in recovered condition. It would appear to be part of a jeweller's stock due to the quantity of repeats of the same item, including guard chains, brooches, earrings, bangles, and rings, enabling some to be grouped together to provide matching suites.
Other items include coins and some artefacts such as pressed glass, porcelain and bottles, revealing a fascinating insight into the trading of the time.
The majority of the jewellery is extremely wearable, and its appeal enhanced by the exciting provenance, providing a unique opportunity to buy a "brand new" piece of antique gold jewellery from the 1860's Gold Necklaces salvaged from the shipwreck.
Hirschfelds have a fine selection of this sunken treasure for sale in Hatton Garden London.
So please contact us or click here for more Antiques and Antique jewellery London