Sunken Chinese Treasures found off Sumatra: Now Gifted Back to China

Ben Packham in The Australian, 16 August 2022.………… with highlighting imposed here by The Editor, Thuppahi

333 porcelain artefacts ­removed from a shipwreck will be returned to the Indonesian government after they were ­advertised online by a private ­seller in Perth.

The Tek Sing was packed with passengers and precious cargo when it hit a reef off the coast of Sumatra in 1822, sinking with an estimated 1500 people aboard.

Now 333 porcelain artefacts ­removed from the shipwreck, known as the “Titanic of the East”, will be returned to the Indonesian government after they were ­advertised online by a private ­seller in Perth.

The Chinese-made ceramics, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, were part of a massive trove that lay on the ocean floor for nearly 200 years.  They appeared for sale on the internet in 2019, sparking a tip to the federal Office of the Arts and an investigation by the Australian Federal Police’s ­Interpol bureau.

Arts Minister Tony Burke will hand over six of the artefacts to ­Indonesian ambassador Siswo Pramono in Canberra on Wednesday – Indonesia’s Independence Day – before the remaining pieces are returned.

Ceramics on the sea bed from the Tek Sing wreck.

“Returning these items to ­Indonesia – where they belong – is about righting a wrong,” Mr Burke told The Australian.

“These items should never have left Indonesia and been ­offered for sale. They belong with Indonesian ­cultural authorities so they can be properly ­preserved.”

The Tek Sing, a 60m ocean-going junk, was sailing from a ­Chinese port in what is now Fujian province to the Dutch East Indies capital of Batavia – now Jakarta – when it ran aground in bad ­weather.

British marine explorer ­Michael Hatcher discovered the wreck in 1999, recovering about 350,000 pieces of porcelain which were sold at auction in Germany and quickly dispersed across the world.

But the items being ­returned to Indonesia by the ­Australian ­government were ­recovered by an unnamed treasure hunter who returned to the site of the Tek Sing some time after the original ­salvage.

The cups, bowls, saucers, spoons and ceramic bottles were finally seized in March this year under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act, which ­supports the return of cultural artefacts illegally taken from other countries.

The person who tried to sell the items was forced to forfeit them, but faced no charges over the haul.

Mr Burke said Australia had firm views about the return of stolen cultural artefacts to their rightful owners.

“Where it was done to Australians, we want the objects back. And where Australia is holding objects we ought not have, we want to assist in their return,” he said. Dr Pramono thanked those involved in the recovery of the items, saying the handover was “concrete evidence of our strategic partnership”.

“The return of these 333 Tek Sing ceramics also serves as a great present for the celebration of the 77th Indonesian Independence Day,” Dr Pramono said.

Ceramics from the Tek Sing. Picture: Supplied

The AFP’s Western Command is co-ordinating the return of the remaining ceramic pieces to the Indonesian government.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Brett Pointing said the AFP had investigators dedicated to combating the illicit trade in artefacts.

“The handover of these culturally significant artefacts is an excellent example of the collaborative work done by the AFP and other law enforcement agencies to disrupt the trading and selling of items which represent a link to a country’s culture and historical past,” he said.

“We maintain liaison officers at 35 international posts in 29 countries, who work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners overseas to identify and stop historical items reaching and being sold on the black market.”


Ben Packham is the Foreign Affairs & Defence Correspondent for  The Australian news chain.

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