An ancient treasure trove salvaged from a 1,000-year-old shipwreck found by Indonesian fishermen is set to fetch at least $80 million when it goes under the hammer in Jakarta on Wednesday.
Belgian treasure hunter Luc Heymans said the haul was one of the biggest found in Asia and was comparable to the most valuable shipwreck ever found anywhere, that of the Atocha, a Spanish vessel that sank off the US state of Florida in 1622.
It includes 271,000 pieces such as rubies, pearls, gold jewelry, Fatimid rock-crystal, Iranian glassware and Chinese imperial porcelain dating to the end of the first millennium, around 976 AD.
“At the time there was a lot of trade going on between Arabia and India and coming down to Java and Sumatra,” said Heymans, who led the salvage and subsequent battles with Indonesian officials to recover the treasure.
Descending for the first time to the wreck site north of Cirebon, West Java, in 2004, the veteran diver said he couldn’t believe what appeared out of the gloom.
“The site was 40 meters by 40 meters and it was just a mountain of porcelain. You couldn’t see any wood [from the ship],” he said.
And not just any porcelain. The pieces include the largest known vase from the Liao dynasty (907-1125) and famous Yue Mise wares from the Five Dynasties (907-960), with the green coloring exclusive to the emperor.
About 11,000 pearls, 4,000 rubies, 400 dark red sapphires and more than 2,200 garnets were also pulled from the depths.
It took 22,000 dives to bring it all up, but Heymans said the salvage work, from February 2004 to October 2005, was the easy part.
“All the major problems began after we got the stuff on shore,” he said.
The police arrested two divers even though Heymans’ company, Cosmix Underwater Research, and his local partner, PT Paradigma Putra Sejathera, had painstakingly arranged survey and excavation licences.
The divers spent a month behind bars before the mix-up was resolved. There were also run-ins with the Navy, efforts by rivals to move in on the wreck, a year of litigation and two years of waiting while Indonesia drafted new regulations to govern such work.
Some of Heymans’ backers who covered him to the tune of $10 million began to worry their investment would be lost, he said.
“I feel some relief now because so many people told me I would never be able to get the permits and get the stuff out of the country,” he said, adding it was one of the most difficult ordeals of his career.
Under Heymans’ arrangement with the government, the state will take half the proceeds of Wednesday’s auction. The salvagers will share the other half.
The auction will be conducted by the government, bidders have to post a $16 million deposit and the artifacts will be sold as a single lot. Registration closes today.
“We hope to get more than $80 million — it all depends on how the auction runs,” Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry official Ansori Zawawi said. Bidders are expected from China, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan.
Marine salvage has had its profile raised in the past week with unconnected news that officials are probing another treasure hunter well known to Indonesia, Michael Hatcher, for allegedly plundering valuable Chinese porcelain from a new wreck.
That probe came after authorities seized 2,360 items dating from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the government alleges Hatcher was trying to smuggle out of the country. No charges have been laid yet.