Thursday, March 23, 2006


Ancient treasures lie beneath Indonesian seas


The Jakarta Post
By Abdul Khalik
March 20, 2006

In the last two weeks, the Navy and National Police have seized several ships carrying ancient ceramics and glassware -- treasure salvaged from shipwrecks in the South China Sea, the Thousands Islands in North Jakarta and off the coast of Cirebon, West Java.

The Navy on March 11 confiscated four ships believed to have illegally salvaged over 260 pieces of ancient ceramic from the South China Sea, several miles off the coast of Pontianak in West Kalimantan, and arrested 26 suspects, including the ship's owner, divers and crew members.

Several days earlier, the Navy apprehended another ship and arrested 17 seamen. The ship, which was about to leave Indonesian waters, was carrying hundreds of antique pieces of ceramic.

The most controversial seizure was the National Police's of the MV Sirens in Marunda, North Jakarta, on Jan. 1. The ship, which belongs to PT PPS and a Belgium-based salvaging company, Cosmix, was confiscated after it was alleged it had been used to illegally salvage ancient items from the waters off the Cirebon coast last year.

Subsequently, the police found thousands of antique ceramics in a warehouse in Tangerang used by PT PPS, and arrested several seamen and divers, including a French and a German diver.

Although experts are still calculating the value of the South China Sea and Thousands Islands hauls, the ancient materials taken from the Cirebon coast are thought to be valued at around US$40 million. Prior to the seizure, Christie's auction house had reportedly agreed to organize an auction for the materials in Amsterdam in December.

The artifacts found in these three areas, however, are only a tiny part of the total treasures though to lie beneath Indonesia's waters. According to the latest research by the Navy and the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, there are at least 463 shipwrecks -- some over a 1,000 years old -- scattered throughout the country's seas.

It is also possible the actual number is even higher, as international experts have said that between the 7th and 18th centuries thousands of ships sank in what are now Indonesian waters

"If the state can get roughly an average of $10 million from each wreck, then imagine how much money the treasures would contribute to the state budget," M. Hasyim Zaini, a senior official at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, told The Jakarta Post recently.

And $10 million could be a very modest estimate. The biggest discovery so far of sunken treasure in Indonesia was valued at $80 million. In 1998, Tilman Walterfang, a German treasure hunter, found over 60,000 artifacts -- ceramics, coins and glassware -- in a 7th to 10th century wreck that dated back to China's Tang Dynasty, in waters near the Bangka-Belitung islands in Sumatra.

According to German newspaper Der Spiegel, Walterfang sold most of the ancient ceramics to the Singapore government in 2005 for $32 million. He took the gold artifacts to Germany and the rest of the ancient ceramics to New Zealand.

Late last year, Walterfang managed to persuade the Indonesian government to accept just $2.5 million and the artifacts he had been unable to sell. Current law rules that the state is entitled to 50 percent of the value of any salvaged treasure, yet the Indonesian government settled for a fraction of what Walterfang owed.

"So far, shipwreck treasures have contributed only Rp 27 billion to the state's coffers. We're still having a lot of problems with illegal salvaging and thefts. And we lack the expertise, equipment and capital needed to salvage treasure. We need the involvement of local and foreign companies to get the most out of the sunken materials," Hasyim said.

Locations of 463 known shipwrecks

No. Location Number of wrecks 1. Bangka Strait 7 2. Belitung 9 3. Gaspar Strait, South Sumatra 5 4. South Karimata 3 5. Riau Sea 17 6. Malaka Strait 37 7. Thousand Islands, North Jakarta 18 8. Central Java waters 9 9. Karimun Jawa Island, Central Java 14 10. Madura Strait 5 11. East and West Nusa Tenggara 8 12. Pelabuhan Ratu waters, West Java 134 13. Makassar Strait 8 14. Cilacap waters, Central Java 51 15. Arafuru waters, Maluku 57 16. Ambon and Buru waters 13 17. Halmahera and Tidore waters 16 18. Morotai waters 7 19. Tomini Bay, North Sulawesi 3 20. Papua waters 31 21. Enggano island, Sumatra 11

Total 463

Source: Navy, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry


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