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7 May 2010

Indonesia treasure finds no buyer

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An auction of treasures including gold, rubies and porcelain from a 10th-century shipwreck found off Indonesia failed to attract a single bidder Wednesday, despite interest from buyers across Asia, reported AFP.

The Indonesian government had hoped to sell the haul of rare riches salvaged in 2004 from an unidentified wreck off Cirebon, West Java, in one lot for a minimum of $80 million.

Expressions of interest came from collectors and investors around the region, including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

But none had paid the hefty 16-million-dollar deposit required for them to bid, officials said.

Maritime Affairs Ministry official Ansori Zawawi said a second auction could be held under revised conditions at a later date, giving investors and collectors more time to study the diverse artefacts.

Some 271,000 pieces were on sale including rubies, pearls, gold jewellery, Fatimid rock-crystal, Iranian glassware and exquisite Chinese imperial porcelain dating back to the late 10th century.

The Indonesian state was set to take 50 percent of the proceeds and the remainder would have been shared among the salvagers, including Belgian treasure hunter Luc Heymans' Cosmix Underwater Research Ltd.

Officials said the deposit requirement, the minimum bid and the short notice of the sale could have been reasons for the auction's failure.

Heymans said buyers had been turned off by the huge deposit required by the Indonesian government and had not been given enough time to prepare, with the auction date being set only last week.

"I'm not surprised because the problem is the regulations... I didn't really expect people to come and deposit 16 million dollars," he told AFP.

"Also the timing, the announcement was only five days before the auction. How do you expect people to decide in five days to put $16 million on the table? It's a lot of money."

He said the treasure was one of the biggest ever found in Asian waters and had no doubt it would be sold eventually.

Descending for the first time onto the wreck site in 2004, the veteran diver said he found what looked like a "mountain of porcelain".

The artefacts 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 colouring exclusive to the emperor.

Around 11,000 pearls, 4,000 rubies, 400 dark red sapphires and more than 2,200 garnets were also pulled from the depths by Heymans and his team of international divers.

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 of the divers even though Heymans and his local partner, Paradigma Putra Sejathera PT, had 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 Indonesian 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.

Heymans said Indonesia could agree to hold an auction outside the country if it failed to attract bidders on its own.

"According to the (regulations), there could be three auctions. If those fail you can go to an international auction outside the country," he said.

Indonesian authorities last week accused another Western treasure hunter, Michael Hatcher, of trying to secretly export thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain he had found on a wreck off Java island.

Hatcher denied the allegations in an interview with The Times.


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