TMCnet News

[April 09, 2006]


(New Zealand Press Association Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Wellington, April 10 NZPA - The New Zealand-based treasure hunter who shipped millions of dollars worth of ancient ceramics to Nelson is pleased Indonesian authorities have cracked down on illicit operations salvaging historic wrecks in its waters.

``The police are looking at all activities regarding undersea treasure,'' said Tilman Walterfang, 49, a former German engineer, who lives in Nelson.

Mr Walterfang shipped home container-loads of ceramics from legitimate salvage of a ninth century Arab dhow, the Batu Hitam, but Indonesian authorities wanted to stop looting and he welcomed the moves.

The ceramics Mr Walterfang shipped to New Zealand included his share of the tens of thousands of artifacts -- ceramics, coins and glassware -- from a 7th to 10th century wreck that dated back to China's Tang Dynasty, in waters near the Bangka-Belitung islands in Sumatra.

His company, Seabed Explorations, sold most of the ancient ceramics to the Singapore Government last year -- for $US32 million ($NZ51 million) -- and Mr Tilman said the deal signed a year ago was approved by both the Indonesian and Singapore governments.

Seabed Explorations paid $US2.5 million to the Indonesian Government as its share of the trove, based on an agreement signed in 2003.

Indonesian officials visited New Zealand to check the valuation of the ceramics, though at the time there was no confirmed buyer.

Seabed Explorations had also provided Indonesia with a representative collection of about 100 ceramics, helped develop plans for a maritime museum in Bali, and paid for Indonesian students to be trained overseas in conservation.

As well, it had helped the Indonesian Government by desalinating 110,000 artifacts it already owned, and giving it country rights to a 750-page book which has just been completed on the salvage.

Last month the Jakarta Post reported that the Indonesian Navy and national police have seized several ships carrying more ancient ceramics and glassware -- treasure salvaged from shipwrecks in the South China Sea, the Thousands Islands in North Jakarta and off the coast of Cirebon, West Java.

Mr Walterfang, 49, told NZPA that Seabed Explorations shipped gold artifacts from the Batu Hitam to Europe, and the valuable ceramics to his base at Nelson for desalination.

When the Chinese government learned of the Batu Hitam discoveries in 2002, the Shanghai Museum arranged to visit the treasures where they were stacked in an aircraft hangar and valued at $US40 million: ``They were very, very interested,'' Mr Walterfang said.

He said the conservation work done in New Zealand was managed by an expert from Germany, but ``we found some quite good people here -- artistic people able to handle sensitive and fragile pieces and we had quite a good team working here.''

Mr Walterfang said since the Batu Hitam salvage, he had encountered problems with a former employee making untruthful allegations about the salvage operation and the disposal of the treasure.

He had had to take legal action in Germany against a newspaper, Der Spiegel, which printed allegations made by the sales agent, who had sought 4 percent of the total value of the treasure in an unsuccessful court case.

Mr Walterfang said the accusations that had been levelled against him were ``nothing but a cheap revenge campaign'' and the salvage and subsequent sales of artifacts had satisfied intensive investigations by the Indonesian and Singaporean governments.

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