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.
The 700,000 pieces -- fine bowls, dishes and cups made during the reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli -- were on a gigantic 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 rink, 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.
He is one of the instigators of an exhibition at Leuchtenburg, a medieval castle near the eastern German city of Jena. It describes the shipwrecked treasures and the task that lies ahead in retrieving them, an expedition Sandizell estimates will cost 5 million euros ($6.3 million) and require the construction of a floating platform to avoid frequent trips back to land. He hopes the show will help save underwater artifacts.
“We want to draw attention to the crazy speed at which these treasures are vanishing,” he said over Indonesian soup and chicken satay, served in a grand hall of Leuchtenburg castle with views of the vast Thuringian Forest in the distance. “In 10 years it will be too late.”
Two delicate bowls from the same era as the Chinese wreck, one decorated with peonies, the other with a rock garden, are displayed in glass vitrines. About a third of the underwater pieces are intact, said Sandizell, who is 53. Only gold and porcelain can survive centuries in salt water unscathed, he said. 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 Chinese imperial 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.
“A shipwreck is a time capsule, a window onto history and can be a way of recovering history that has been lost,” Sandizell said. “The history that is brought to light should be accessible to everyone.”
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.
Yet Sandizell says it is sometimes impossible to protect shipwrecks in situ, which requires water police to prevent looting. The Leuchtenburg exhibition shows some Chinese coins retrieved from the ocean -- probably by fishermen -- bundled on a string and sold to tourists. Where they were found and the history of the shipwreck can no longer be traced.
“We want UNESCO to jump over its own shadow and get proactive in protecting shipwrecks,” Sandizell said.
Arqueonautas focuses on the coasts of countries such as Mozambique and Indonesia, which lack the means to protect shipwrecks on site. Sandizell’s company raises some funding for expeditions through royalties on its clothing brand, owned by the Hamburg-based Otto Group. He favors a financing model for recovery missions that entails selling some of the numerous reclaimed artifacts that are of the same design.
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.
“The Wanli wreck is in serious danger from pillagers, who risk destroying it entirely,” Sandizell said. “Due to earlier operations on the wreck site, the exact location is no longer a secret. Rescue recovery is the only option left.
The enormous number of artifacts expected on this wreck and the steep investment required mean heritage and commercial aspects must be carefully weighed.”
For more information on “The Wanli Expedition. White Gold From the Bottom of the Sea,” go to: http://www.leuchtenburg.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)