Divers Find 400-Year-Old Silk Dress in Dutch Shipwreck

For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, here’s the deal: Divers in the Wadden Sea found a fancy 17th-century gown partially buried in the sand. The gown is astonishingly well-preserved, given the circumstances, and may be one of the most important artifacts ever brought up from the sea floor.

The dress was recovered off the Dutch island of Texel, which was, for a time, an important center of trade. Unfortunately for traders, Texel’s location also made it a prime site for shipwrecks. As Livius at The History Blog explains, “Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms.”

Many of those wrecks have since been washed further out to sea, but some remain in the relative shallows surrounding the island. Divers generally avoid disturbing them, instead waiting for the ocean to reveal the rotting wrecks. Two years ago, the currents uncovered a historical (not literal) gold mine: the remains of a well appointed merchant vessel from the 1600s. The ship had shed a mysterious bundle, which the divers ferried back to the surface.

Once in open air, they opened the package and realized they’d found the contents of someone’s wardrobe, and that someone must have been pretty well off. There were silk knee socks and a jacket, as well as a silk bodice embroidered in silver and gold.

But the most impressive piece was a damask gown with a high collar and ruffled sleeves—the kind of thing noblewomen or royalty might wear around the house. For the gown, anyway, the shipwreck had been a blessing; on land, exposed to air and moths, it would be in much worse shape than it is today. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

The wreck site also disgorged a variety of fancy-people artifacts, including pomander balls, a silver vessel, Italian pottery, spices, and leather-bound books. One of those books bears the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests that the ship’s passengers may have belonged to the royal house of Stuart.

The gown and other finds from the shipwreck are currently on display at Texel’s delightful Kaap Skil Maritime and Beachcombers’ Museum, and will return there permanently after they’re examined and treated by conservators.

Images from YouTube // Museum Kaap Skil Oudeschild, Texel

By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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