Given the country’s thousands of sprawling islands, key shipping lanes and bounty of shipwrecks, the government should immediately draft legislation on the recovery and management of sunken treasures, stakeholders said.
Last week’s lack of bidders at an auction of 10th-century ceramics and jewelry recovered from the depths was clear proof that the government had a long way to go toward managing such items, said speakers at a discussion organized by the Indonesian Heritage Trust (BPPI) in Jakarta on Tuesday.
Ratu Raja Arimbi Nurtina, a spokeswoman for the Cirebon royal family at the Kanoman Palace, said the recovered items had been taken from the waters off Cirebon, West Java, without the involvement of local residents.
“I regret the decision to take these treasures and put them under the hammer,” she said. “Even though they were, strictly speaking, not ours, it would have been better to consult with us on the matter.”
The treasures, Arimbi said, could have been used to build a picture of the region’s vibrant trading history.
“The palace opposes any attempt by the government to auction off the treasure before it is exhibited to the people of Cirebon,” she said, adding that Kanoman Palace needed a say in any decision made by the government or private contractors salvaging sunken treasure in the area.
Mustaqim Asteja, from the Cirebon-based Kendi Pertula Heritage Society, said a thorough study of the treasure could shed light on the city’s past. “History is a work in progress,” he said. “You can’t categorically rule out these items being related to Cirebon or its development.”
The Cirebon shipwreck was located 130 kilometers off the north coast of West Java. Under the regional autonomy law, a district’s jurisdiction stretches up to six kilometers offshore, while a province’s jurisdiction extends from six to 20 km. The central government is responsible for anything beyond that.
Nunus Supardi, the former director for archeology and ancient history at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, said government regulations on recovered treasures remained unclear. “No one understands how it works,” he said.
The government on May 5 held its first-ever auction of treasures recovered from a shipwreck. Under the hammer was a single lot consisting of 271,000 pieces of Chinese imperial ceramics and jewelry from as far away as Arabia and India, worth at least $80 million, recovered from the Cirebon shipwreck.
But Nunus said the auction, which failed to attract even a single bid, was handled poorly and its failure was due in part to its abrupt announcement and the exorbitantly high deposit demanded of bidders.
The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries had only given one week’s notice for the auction. Elsewhere, Nunus said, auctions of such magnitude were announced months in advance.
In addition, the government auction required bidders to put up a deposit of $16 million, or 20 percent of the asking price.
Criticism of the auction has also come from abroad. In a statement released last week, the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Irina Bokova, said it would be “unfortunate” if the treasures were to be sold off.
“The contents of the shipwreck found off the coast of the city of Cirebon have much to tell us about cultural and commercial exchanges in the region at that time,” she said.
“We therefore encourage the Indonesian government to make every effort to ensure that thorough scientific examination of the site is carried out.”
The country has yet to ratify the UN’s convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage, which ensures better protection of shipwrecks and deals with the issues of looting and destruction of such finds.
According to Nunus, modern treasure salvaging in Indonesian waters began in 1986, when salvager Michael Hatcher recovered ceramics from the Dutch vessel Geldermalsen off Tanjung Pinang in Riau Islands.
He said Hatcher took the items to the Netherlands, where they were sold at an illegal auction for $20 million.
Hatcher had been wanted for allegedly trying to smuggle illegally salvaged items out of the country, but police later said they had no evidence against him. He denies any wrongdoing in his activities.
Surya Helmi, director of underwater heritage at the Culture Ministry, said looting of the country’s historic artefacts had been overlooked for years.
“The last time someone was charged with trying to smuggle out sunken treasure was in 2005,” he said. “The case has since vanished without a peep from anyone.”