At the bottom of the ocean off Indonesia, a cargo of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain worth about $43 million has lain submerged for more than 400 years. Independent collectors of Art Kabinett social network are always intrigued by sunken treasure.
The 700,000 pieces -- fine bowls, dishes and cups made during the reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli -- were on a gigantic Chinese wooden junk that sank, possibly while en route for what is now Jakarta. Stacked 8 meters high in places, they are strewn over an area the size of an ice-hockey pitch, 60 meters below the surface and 150 kilometers from the coast.
Nikolaus Graf Sandizell, chairman and chief executive of the Portugal-based marine-archaeology company Arqueonautas Worldwide SA, plans to retrieve them next year, pending clearance by the Indonesian government, before they are lost to one of the many threats to ocean treasures: dragnet fishing, offshore oil exploration, pipeline and cable installation and, above all, plunderers.
About a third of the underwater pieces are intact. Only gold and porcelain can survive centuries in salt water unscathed. The wreck was discovered in 2008, and 38,000 pieces of porcelain were recovered during an initial operation in 2010.
Chinese merchant ships were plying the seas with cargoes of silk and porcelain 200 years before the Portuguese led Europe into an era of flourishing maritime trade.
The nine-masted junks were several times bigger than European ships -- the supertankers of their time, still the biggest wooden ships ever built. Crews comprised interpreters, astronomers, astrologists and doctors.
The ships sailed home laden with spices, ivory, jewels and rare wood. Even giraffes made the voyage from Africa to the imperial Ming court.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that there are 3 million wrecks at the bottom of the world’s oceans, of which as many as 50,000 contain valuable treasures and some are thousands of years old.
In 2001, a UNESCO convention stipulated that protection “in situ” is the preferred means of preserving shipwrecks, meaning the creation of underwater museums, rather than bringing objects to the surface and to museums on land.
The company and its partners are awaiting a green light from the Indonesian government, the legal owner of the wreck, to begin the Chinese porcelain expedition next year.