Sun, 18 Jun 2000

What to do about our underwater treasures

By Amir Sidharta

JAKARTA (JP): Earlier this month, after the Indonesian Navy successfully foiled an attempt to smuggle underwater treasures recovered from Indonesian waters, State Minister of Social Affairs Anak Agung Gde Agung recommended the preparation of regulations on the preservation of cultural heritage.

Referring patriotically to our national heritage and history, he suggested that the seized items be surrendered to the state and placed in museums.

There is no question that Indonesia's cultural heritage should be preserved, but Law No. 5/1992 on cultural heritage already covers the relevant matters quite comprehensively.

The minister's comments make him appear unaware of the regulation. In addition, it seems he is uninformed about the actual types of objects that have been recovered and their cultural value.

He is certainly unaware about the state of museums in this country.

First of all, our museums do not have the necessary resources to be able to accommodate the thousands of objects recovered from the sea. If they are all placed in our museums, it would not be long before most would become neglected and damaged.

Secondly, although known cumulatively as treasures, most of the items are what is known as "market ware", ceramics that were traded. Hence, they cannot be considered "museum pieces".

The government should collect unique pieces and the best samples of the recovered items for academic research.

A selection can be kept and shown in museums. However, the remainder should be utilized for the benefit of the nation in a less conservative manner: they can be publicly sold, and the revenues can benefit the government.

This is also not a new idea. Minister of Maritime Exploration and Fisheries Sarwono Kusumaatmadja claimed last January that underwater treasures can help pay Indonesia's debt. He proposed the goods could be auctioned through international auction houses to fetch millions of dollars.

According to Presidential Decree No. 43/1989, with the exploitation of underwater treasures, the government is entitled to 50 percent of the net (after taxes) profits from the sale of underwater treasures.

Indeed, public auctions of the items would be the fairest and most transparent manner to sell the goods. As they are open and public, auctions are entirely transparent and completely fair.

In a Continental auction, in which the successful bid goes to whoever bids the highest price, the highest possible price for the piece at the particular time and the particular location would be reached.

There is little question that the best way to publicly sell the recovered underwater treasures is through auctions. By doing so, the best price of the goods will be reached.

The big question is where the goods should be auctioned. Would London or Amsterdam be the best place to auction the goods, or would it be better off auctioning the pieces in Hong Kong or Singapore? Or would it perhaps be best to auction them back home?

Recent reports said that some of the recovered items have been illicitly auctioned abroad.

There is also a report that 43 containers of recovered underwater treasures were unsuccessfully shipped to Australia, and are now held by Australian customs.

It is not clear why the goods were shipped to Australia.

Certainly, there are advantages and disadvantages to auctioning the goods in each location. We have to remember that each location caters to different markets, depending on the current trends and tastes of the particular markets.

Two items of the same kind might fetch different prices in different locations.

Hence, it is important to place goods in locations where the market for the specific goods is the strongest.

However, it is also important to consider that the placement of the goods in the best locations could involve high costs and risks. The goods might have to be transported to the best location, insured at premium rates and stored there at high costs.

Therefore, this also has to be taken into consideration. The advantages and disadvantages of placing the goods in one location or the other should be carefully studied before making decisions.

Specialists will be able to determine the price estimates of the items in specific markets, and the costs and risks involved in selling them at that particular market can be calculated. In short, and cost and benefits study should be done.

Apart from the actual sales values of the lots, sales in each location will affect the Indonesian government's fiscal revenues from tax and excises in different ways. There are also indirect benefits to auctioning the goods in Indonesia.

Although modest by comparison to the auction values of the lots, auctioning the goods in Indonesia will also attract visitors to the country.

More importantly, however, it will support a relatively new chain of cultural industries and create much-needed jobs in this crisis-torn country. This also should be studied and considered carefully.

In the end, it seems clear that the best return would be achieved through careful selection. A selection of items might be auctioned in London or Amsterdam, with another batch going under the hammer in Hong Kong or Singapore. It also seems logical to simply auction the most commonplace items back home.

The other big question now is which government office has the authority over the recovered underwater treasures. Is it the authority of the Ministry of National Education or the Ministry of Maritime Exploration and Fisheries? What is the interest of the Office of State Minister of Social Affairs? The Ministry of Finance also has a great interest in the matter.

Early in March, Minister for Maritime Exploration and Fisheries Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said that in coordination with the ministers of national education and finance, regulations regarding the exploitation of valuable treasures including recovered underwater treasures will be drafted immediately.

Since 1989, it has been the National Committee for the Recovery and Exploitation of Treasures from Shipwrecks (Pannas PPBB), under the coordinating minister for political and security affairs, which has authority over underwater sea treasures.

However, it seems to have changed.

Sarwono stated later in March that the search for and auction of recovered underwater treasures would be handled by a management bureau involving the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of National Education, Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Maritime Exploration and Fisheries. It seems that his management bureau will become a new Pannas PPBB National Committee which is just as inefficient as the one established under the New Order government.

The Navy, which thus far has played a great role in not only the safeguarding of the treasures but also the exploration for them, seems to have an interest as well.

Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Achmad Sutjipto suggested the committee be merged under the Ministry of Maritime Exploration and Fisheries.

It seems inevitable that the authority will involve more than one ministry, but the admiral is on the right track: in this day and age, the simpler the better.