The mystery of La Contessa

A galleon destroyed by fire. A priceless missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the San Francisco underground.

La Contessa was a Spanish galleon, amazingly authentic and true to 16th-century design standards in all but a couple respects. It was half the size of the ships that carried colonizers to this continent and pirates through the Caribbean. And it was built around a school bus, designed to trawl the Burning Man festival and the Black Rock Desert environs, where it became perhaps the most iconic and surreal art piece in the event's history.

The landcraft — perhaps like the sailing ships of yore — wasn't exactly easy to navigate. It was heavy and turned slowly. The person driving the school bus couldn't actually see much, so a navigator sitting on the bow needed to communicate to the driver by radio. Those sitting in the crow's nest felt the vessel gently sway as if it were rocking on waves.

Inside, it was a picture of luxury: opulent, with a fancy bar, gilded frames, velvet trim — a cross between a fancy bordello and a captain's stateroom. And adorning its bow was a priceless work of art, a figure of a woman by San Francisco sculptor Monica Maduro.

The ship and its captains and crew — most of whom are members of San Francisco's popular Extra Action Marching Band — hit more than their share of storms in the desert, developing a storied outlaw reputation that eventually got them banned from Burning Man. By 2005 much of the galleon's crew was dispirited and unsure if they'd ever return. The ship was no longer welcome at the Ranch staging area run by the event's organizers and unable to legally navigate the highways without being dismantled. So it returned to its berth on Grant Ranch, on the edge of Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where Joan Grant had welcomed La Contessa and two other large artworks since 2003.

Then late last summer someone looted the ship, stealing Maduro's work, which was stored in a special box and hidden deep within the ship's hold. Maduro and others have kept the theft a secret until now in the hope that they might find it, fearing that publicity and police involvement might drive the piece further underground, particularly after the reported sighting of a photo of the figurehead on, with a caption indicating it was the latest addition to someone's living room.

And in early December, apparently without warning, prominent local landowner Mike Stewart set La Contessa on fire and had her charred remains hauled away.

It was a sad and unceremonious ending for La Contessa, a subject of ongoing legal actions, and an illustration of what an explosion of creativity leaves in its wake — a challenge that Burning Man faces as it seeks to become more environmentally responsible as it grows exponentially.

It was also a sign of the lingering tension between the giant countercultural festival and the residents of Hualapai Valley, who endure the annual onslaught of tens of thousands of visitors to their remote and sparsely populated region, along with the cultural and economic offerings they bring.

Grant had recently sold her 3,000-acre spread (although she retained a lifelong lease of her ranch home) to her neighbor, Mike Stewart, a landlord who didn't share Grant's love for the annual Burning Man event and its colorful denizens. In fact, Stewart led a legal and regulatory battle against Burning Man in 2003, trying unsuccessfully to shut down the Ranch and thus kill the event.

"I've been with them since they started out there, when they were just little bitty kids.... I adopted them, and they've always been supergood to me," Grant told the Guardian.