Hidden treasures

From The Jakarta Post


The much-awaited auction of more than 270,000 pieces of 11 century-old artifacts retrieved from a shipwreck in Cirebon and the recent finding of 12,400 items of ancient Chinese ceramics in neighboring Subang waters only confirms the country’s rich in undersea treasures, which may have long been overlooked.

There are an estimated 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks spread across the oceans, including in Indonesian waters, tempting maritime treasure hunters to dive deep in the sea for a bounty.

The price tag of the auctioned historical items has been set at US$80 million, and with the proceeds to be evenly shared between the government and the finders, including Belgian Luc Heymans’ Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd., it can be imagined how lucrative the industry is.

An Australian underwater treasure hunter who was recently declared a fugitive by the police for illegal salvage work of Chinese artifacts in Subang reportedly made $17 million from gold ingots and Chinese porcelain salvaged from a wreck found off the Riau Islands in the 1980s alone.

German treasure hunter Klaus Keppler, who has been operating in Indonesia for years, says the business is risky as evident in the fact he has searched about 70 wrecks, but only five are probably worth it. He has earned big, however, including from his recovery of a 10th century wreck and a 19th century British vessel that ran aground Indonesian waters.

The foreign hunters will continue to take advantage of Indonesia’s limited technology, equipment and lack of interest to excavate more treasures lying beneath the sea. Given the fact that Indonesia was a prominent route of international trade linking Asia, the Middle East and Europe in the past, the industry is indeed a money machine.

It remains unclear how much the industry has contributed to state revenue as there have been no official reports on undersea treasure findings, except from media coverage. Nobody knows either the amount of potential income from unreported discoveries as a result of limited maritime patrols and the government’s control.

The price Indonesia may have to pay for allowing the business to flourish, however, may exceed the proceeds. As the UNESCO has put it, the sales of ancient artifacts salvaged from the sea may cause Indonesia to lose valuable heritage of the past civilization.


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Subang Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd Chinese ceramics Belgian Luc Heymans Riau Islands Klaus Keppler