Continuing ratty smell over the Cirebon wreck treasure

cross posted from richardthinks

This story just keeps giving. If I were doing a PhD on the antiquities trade I think it would be the centre of my thesis.

Back in 2003 valuable porcelain started turning up off the north coast of Java. As generally happens, Western salvager-researchers showed up to excavate it, with a deal from the Indonesian government. These operations are sometimes light on the archaeology, but the expeditions are conducted under very difficult circumstances: there’s no shortage of treasure seekers out there, dives have to be conducted quickly and secretly, and things can turn very nasty. And as quite often happens, when the wreck turns out to be worth a lot of money, trouble ensued. The government started arresting divers, papers were found not to be in order, the stuff brought up was impounded (and endangered) by authorities that didn’t know much about historiacl value but knew cash value when they saw it. And Indonesian salvage law was hastily rewritten.

Then nothing happened for 5 years, until a few days ago, when notice was given of an auction of the whole trove and a $16 million door policy. Yesterday the auction was opened and immediately closed, because nobody had shown up. So what’s going on here?

I don’t know, exactly, but that last report gives some hints…

Christie’s was originally expected to hold an auction as early as 2007, but that fell through as the Indonesian government struggled to come up with regulations for the sale of sunken treasures found within Indonesian waters. The regulations finally in place require bidders to front up to 20 percent of the minimum price of the objects for sale – in this case, $16 million.
…government organizers admitted they had not given enough notice to potential buyers. The $16 million security deposit was another likely deterrent.
…”Because the absence of bidders in the first auction … we will propose a second auction,”
…The regulations also stipulate that if an auction fails three times, the government can directly approach potential buyers, including other governments. China, for example, may be interested in recovering the treasures, as the bulk of the collection was Chinese, Saad said.
We know that China has begun a massive government program of bulk-buying antiquities as part of “safeguarding its national heritage.” We know that China has a great deal of influence in the Indonesian economy. The Jakarta Globe went with AFP’s headline: Little Interest in Indonesian Treasure.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess that the Indonesian government was planning to let the three auctions slip by without anyone being able to bid, so that it could sell the whole hoard to China for an undisclosed sum. Maybe to avoid having to pay up the full 50% value to the salvagers.

I’mma leave the last word to Indonesian Minister of Culture and Tourism Jero Wacik, via the inimitable grabahantique: If you’re honest, there’s no harm in selling these goods. The concern instead the government of China. It’s their stuff


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