Eleven really old bottles of Champagne were auctioned for more than $156,000 this week. Recovered from a sunken schooner, they had spent 170 years on the seabed off Aaland, an archipelago of 6500 island between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea, before being discovered by amateur diver Christian Ekstroem. Appropriately, Mr Ekstroem manages a pub for a brewery in Mariehamn, Aaland's only city. The Aaland Islands are situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia and are autonomous within Finland, with their own government.
“We didn’t know what we had found at first,” said Ekstroem, referring to his group of eight divers. “I brought a bottle up and the closer I got to the surface, I had to hold the cork down with my thumb. It popped when I was in the boat, so we poured some into cups. We had no idea how valuable it was.”
What was unique- or providential- about the discovery was that the Champagne was in perfect condition what with the bottles having gently fallen horizontally in ideal conditions in the dark and freezing waters of the Baltic. Six of the bottles were from the house of Juglar that closed shop in 1829. Four were the expensive Veuve Clicquot and one was Heidsieck, which was auctioned for 11,500 Euros, The Clicquot sold for 15,000 Euros. The auction of all the bottles together fetched 125,500 Euros. There were many more bottles found in the wreck- a total of 162, and also 5 beer bottles- but only 79 were deemed drinkable. Aaland will sell some of the Champagne to fund maritime archaeology and environmental projects in the Baltic.
Veuve Clicquot has dated the corks from the Champagne bottles found to roughly the years 1831-1841. The schooner was a typical two-mast sailing vessel 'schooner-rigged', a common sight in the area at the time.
Project Manager of the 'Champagne Project', Aalander Lina Dumas is happy with the auction for another reason not to do with money. “Most people don’t know where Aaland is or even that it exists, so we’re very happy to have this opportunity to share our maritime cultural history and finally put Aaland on the map,” she said at the Aaland Maritime Museum, close to where the bottles were eventually auctioned.
The five bottles of beer are being used by Stallhagen, the brewery Ekstroem works for, to make new 'recipes' based on the discovery. Sadly for Ekstroem, wrecks more than 100 years old belong to the government and his group of divers who discovered the Champagne will make no money.
“We’ve had nothing, not even a thank you,” Ekstroem said in an interview at the brewery. “It’s not even about the money.”