Indonesia fights to stop auction of sunken treasure
By Rita A. Widiadana
JAKARTA (JP): It is known as the "The Titanic of the East". A huge replica of the Chinese junk Tek Sing (True Star), which sunk in the Gelassa Straits east of Sumatra in the 19th century, stands in the Stuttgart railway station in Germany.
In January 1822, the Tek Sing was on its way from the Chinese harbor of Amoy (now Hsiemen) to Java, carrying almost 2,000 people, with a crew of more than 200 and at least 1,600 passengers.
It hit a reef during a storm, capsizing almost immediately. More than 1,600 people went down with the ship, more than the number of dead on the Titanic almost 100 years later.
About 12,000 pieces of antique Chinese porcelain recovered from the ship are displayed in the 60 meter by 10 meter replica in an exhibition opened by Stuttgart mayor Dr. Schuster last Tuesday.
The ship is being used for multimedia presentations of the disaster, the salvage operation and porcelain manufacturing.
Visitors to the exhibition, which will run until November, can book the junk for special events. In the evening, the replica is also available for exclusive private events, including special guides and a sumptuous Asiatic buffet, a talk on Chinese porcelain and other oriental-themed entertainment.
"The opening of this gigantic exhibition is a historical day for Nagel," Robin Ph. Straub, the director of Nagel Auctions, the German organizer of the exhibition, was quoted as saying on http://www-teksing.de/english/ausstellung.htm., a special website designed to promote the exhibition and auction worldwide.
The exhibition is the prelude to an international auction, dubbed the "auction of the year", scheduled to be held on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18. It will offer 35,000 antique Chinese porcelains and other items excavated by the British-born treasure hunter Michael Hatcher and his team.
Most of the items are blue-white porcelain manufactured in the Chinese city of Dehua in the 18th century and early 19th century for export to Asian markets. Other types of porcelain from different periods were also found, dating back as far as the 15th century.
To draw international prospective bidders, Nagel Auctions and Hatcher have set up the website with the latest information on the Tek Sing goods and auction rules. The 600-page catalog and a new book, The Legacy of Teksing by Nigel Pickford, are also available.
All preparations for the exhibition and auction have been carefully carried out. Hatcher and Straub are thrilled at the prospect of pocketing possible yields of around DM 35 million (approximately US$25 million) from the auction.
It is the most promising scenario of what will happen in November. The flip side is worse, at least for Hatcher, an orphan turned multimillionaire.
On the other side of the globe, the Indonesian government is arming itself to fight a bitter war against Hatcher and the German auctioneer.
For Jakarta, Hatcher is a mere professional art looter who has pillaged and salvaged the country's valuable underwater treasures since the early 1980s and then smartly sold them abroad.
In 1986, Hatcher gained $16.6 million from the sale of 160,000 antique ceramics, 126 gold bars and other items taken from a Dutch shipwreck in Riau waters in 1986.
"Hatcher may not be able to smile again. We are now trying hard to stop the planned auction of our 'stolen' treasures. The Nagel firm will risk its reputation for selling 'problematic' goods," director of archaeology at the Directorate of Culture Nunus Supardi said firmly.
Auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's reportedly refused to sell the Tek Sing porcelains.
Nunus said the displayed goods at the Stuttgart exhibition were taken from the Gelassa Straits in Sumatra and then Hatcher and his Indonesian partner, Suwanda, from local salvaging company PT Prasarana Cakrawala Dirga, smuggled the goods to Australia and Germany.
Under Indonesian rules, any excavation operated in Indonesian waters must bear an official permit. Any goods found must be reported to the government for archaeological records. The Indonesian government is entitled to half the proceeds from the auction of the goods.
"The Australian government rejected the goods, categorized as cultural items," said Nunus, adding that Australia was a signatory to a UN convention on the protection of cultural property. Signatories to the convention, including Indonesia, are obliged to cooperate with other members on the protection on their cultural heritages.
When the cargo was on its way to Germany, the Indonesian Navy seized 43 containers filled with Chinese ceramics from the Belize-flagged Swissco Marine IX, hired by Hatcher from Singapore. Hatcher succeeded in shipping the remaining treasures to Germany.
"Hatcher's partner, Suwanda, was captured and has been named a suspect for his alleged involvement in the smuggling," reported the commander of Tanjung Priok Navy Main Base II, Rear Adm. Djuhana Suwarna. Maj. Gen. (ret) Gasyim was also named a suspect for allegedly issuing fake permits for several salvaging companies.
Nunus said although Germany was not a signatory to the convention, he was optimistic Berlin would extend help to Jakarta's efforts.
Early this week, the Berlin Museum returned a 1,000-year-old stone relief, stolen from a Hindu temple 18 years ago, to the Nepalese government. German politicians, art experts and journalists are now pushing the government and art institutions to return illegal artifacts to their countries of origin, AP said.
"We have sent letters to the German and Dutch governments asking for their cooperation," he said.
Paris-based Interpol has promised to assist Indonesia, he said.
"Interpol wants to uncover people behind the strong international network of cultural thefts," he added.
Nunus acknowledged the Indonesian government was inspired by the triumph of the Chinese government in winning precious treasures back from the auction floor.
Beijing recently slammed Hong Kong's Christie's and Sotheby's for conducting sales of a life-size bronze tiger head and three other Qing Dynasty treasures.
"China is now aggressively waging a campaign to stop the looting and to salvage as much as possible of the country's incalculable wealth of historic artifacts," Nunus said.
All over the world, governments and people are demanding the return of treasures shipped abroad by colonial rulers. Countries like China, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Indonesia are demanding world governments, auction houses, art dealers and art collectors halt trade in looted antiquities, describing it as "archaeological crime and the theft of history".
"People are now becoming more aware of what they've lost," Nunus said.
During the colonial period in the Dutch East Indies, the Dutch and other western powers took old artifacts, manuscripts, art works and a haul of treasures to their countries.
"We can learn from the Chinese government and its people," he said.
China's businesspeople and art collectors, he said, were willingly helping their government in efforts to bring the treasures home. They are helping buy the treasures from auction houses and returned them to China's museums.
Indonesia has numerous wealthy businesspeople who are also ardent art collectors. Will they follow their Chinese counterparts and assist in bringing Indonesian artworks back home?