Saturday, August 28, 2004


Treasure hunters in Asia


By Arul John

Swede and his crew comb the waters of Malaysia and Indonesia for buried history

He has been attacked by pirates and his ship had to be escorted by navy frigates.

Move over Indiana Jones because Mr Sten Sjostrand is a modern-day treasure hunter who has had his fair share of close calls.

Like how his ship once hit a rock and he had to bail out just before it sank.

All in a day's work for the modest Swede who used to work here as an oil rigger.

Mr Sjostrand's fascination with treasures of the waters of Malaysia and Indonesia started when he bought an antique Chinese bowl. He dreamt of the day when he would buy his own ship and scour the seas.

It took him more than 20 years but there's no looking back.

Today the 60-year-old Swede makes a living out of his treasures.

It involves good old detective work.

He told The New Paper: 'In fact, the recovery is the easy part and often takes only about two days. But locating the shipwreck and the research can take months.'

And that means going through piles of tattered documents and books for leads.

He claimed his firm, Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sendirian Berhad, is unusual.

'We are not a salvage firm,' he said. 'Salvage firms search for cargo for profit, but we are motivated by our love for historical accuracy.

'So we like to think of ourselves as a recovery and excavation firm.'

Nanhai means South China Sea in Mandarin. It is also the name of a place in China's Guangzhou province where one of his first wrecks came from.

Mr Sjostrand left Sweden after graduating in engineering and naval architecture and moved to design offshore oil rigs in then booming South-east Asia.

He bought an antique Chinese bowl in Singapore as a souvenir in the '70s.

That inspired him to do research and he set up Nanhai after he retired in 1992.

He and his three associates have taken part in salvaging 10 shipwrecks.

They have recovered pottery and ceramics from the 10th to 19th centuries.

Nanhai operates out of its building near Johor's Endau-Rompin national park, or from its lone research ship, which he said was as long as a fishing trawler and cost 'a few thousand ringgit'.

Mr Sjostrand's Thai wife also travels with him. The couple have no children, but Mr Sjostrand has two grown-up children in Scandinavia from an earlier marriage.

He said: 'My wife usually helps with the cooking, while the rest of us do the diving, excavation and research.'
He prefers to deal with a select group of collectors and museums, usually through the Internet or at hotels.

'I do not like auctions because they are usually held overseas among the wrong crowd. South-east Asian treasures should be sold or appreciated in the region.'

Most of the items sold for between $250 and $2,000 but one 630-year-old ceramic piece fetched RM48,000 ($21,600)

Mr Sjostrand said: 'We live off the proceeds of the sales and are comfortable. We often live on the boat and do not have salaries.'


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