Well, here's the scoop.
They were recovered from a shipwreck!
Die Frau Metta Catherina (or "Mrs. Metta Catherina," often shortened to Frau Metta or Catherina) a Danish brigantine (two-masted) ship, sank in a winter storm Dec. 10, 1786. She was carrying a cargo of hemp, plus bundles of reindeer hides from St. Petersburg in Finland. (The Sotheby's people mistakenly identified it as Russian. Hey, I made the same mistake initially, too. Update: Some sources continue to link the reference to Russia -- what IS clear is that the "Russia leather" process described here did indeed originate in St. Petersburg, Russia.)
The Catherina "struck Drake's Island and was blown toward Mount Edgecumbe before sinking in the darkness somewhere under Raven's cliffs on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound." Her crew were rescued, but the ship and its cargo were soon buried under the mud -- and forgotten.
In 1973, divers from the British sub Aqua Club were looking for the HMS Harwich, which had foundered in 1691 in Battery Buoy, the deepwater channel between Drake's Island and Cornwall. Instead, they found a ship's bell -- yes, the Catherina. "Further underwater investigation revealed part of the rigging and then the cargo -- bundles of hides on the seafloor, remarkably preserved after two hundred years immersion in black mud."
|A hide from the Frau Metta -- read more about its display here.|
Why is this important?
Because the mud and time did something wonderful to those reindeer hides. Not only were they preserved in excellent condition -- their color, texture and wearability makes them sought after for leather goods -- especially very expensive watch bands. "The colour varies from a rich claret to a lighter sienna and most of the hides have a crossed hatched grain embossed by hand. the same diced grain known as "Russia" leather, famous for its ability to keep both water and insects at bay.
|The hides in situ on the ocean floor|
Which meant a bonanza of rare leather hides underwater, just waiting for some treasure hunter to dig them up.
Eventually, the ownership of the ship's cargo was determined to be Prince Charles, honorary president of the British Sub Aqua Club...and the current Duke of Cornwall. He generously waived his rights to the leather, on the condition that some of the hides be sold to help fund further excavation of the wreck.
These hides turn up now and again on the market -- and go for big bucks when they do. It's not often that beautiful, durable leather combines with age and historic interest. But the Russia leather hides from Die Frau Metta Catherina do it with ease.