China History Forum, Chinese History Forum _ Chinese Archaeology _ Salvaged Tang-era sunken cargo in Indonesia

Posted by: snowybeagle May 13 2006, 09:20 PM


IT BEGAN with the lure of ancient sunken artefacts buried in the waters off an Indonesian island and culminated in a discovery of treasure worth millions.

But today, seven years after German engineer Tilman Walterfang unearthed a treasure trove among what is said to be the oldest shipwreck in South-east Asia, he finds himself snared in a court tussle.

Mr Walterfang went in search of the treasure off the Indonesian island of Belitung between Borneo and Sumatra when he first heard of the ancient treasure from fishermen.

What he discovered on the seabed was tens of thousands of Chinese Tang dynasty artefacts dating back about 1,200 years.

It was enough for Mr Walterfang to quit his job in Germany .

In Indonesia, he and his partner, Mr Matthias Draeger, spent millions of dollars to salvage the treasure.

Seven years after their astounding discovery, they sold the treasure to Singapore’s Sentosa Leisure Group for what is understood to be about US$32 million ($50m) last year.

Then came the twist.

Mr Walterfang, 49, and Mr Draeger now find themselves caught in a court battle with the former marketing agent they had hired to find buyers.

The agent, German Nicolai Baron von Uexkull, a Singapore PR, sued his former employers in Germany , claiming basic pay and expenses. He also wanted a court declaration that his termination was invalid.

Mr Walterfang and Mr Draeger, meanwhile, have taken him to court in Singapore, for breach of confidentiality.

The two sides are now entangled in a tug-of-war: Mr von Uexkull wants the case to be heard in Germany, but his former employers want the battle fought in Singapore. (See report on facing page.)

The story began in 1998.

Mr Walterfang was working in a concrete company in Germany then.


Fishermen he met in Indonesia told him about the treasures. The locals had themselves found pieces of ancient pottery underwater and sold them off.

Mr Walterfang, an avid diver, then embarked on his quest for the treasure.

In 1998, he hit paydirt. Near a coral reef, he discovered a mountain of well-preserved Chinese artefacts.

He told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine: ‘I landed on what looked like an ordinary section of coral reef.

‘But it was actually an underwater mound the size of a small hill that was built almost entirely of tens of thousands of pieces of well-preserved ceramic pottery.’

It was a treasure hunter’s dream: Gold drinking cups, 7th or 8th century bronze mirrors with inscriptions, gold and silver chalices, ceramic bowls and vases, and kilns from Hunan province.

Many of the pieces were in pristine condition due to the lack of strong currents in that area. It turned out to be a significant find.

Dating back to the 9th century, it was said to be the oldest shipwreck found in South-east Asia. It also confirmed the early existence of a maritime ‘silk road’ between the Middle East and China.

Mr Walterfang and Mr Draeger later formed a company, Seabed Explorations, to salvage the wreck .

After salvaging the wreck and preserving the artefacts, they started looking for a buyer.

In 2001, they hired Mr von Uexkull to market the artefacts. But it was a relationship fraught with problems.

Seabed terminated Mr von Uexkull’s services in October 2002, but hired him again a couple of months later.

In June 2003, they signed an agreement to pay Mr von Uexkull DM8,000 ($8,250) a month, plus expenses, and a commission of 4 per cent of the cargo’s sale.

In June 2004, the company terminated his services again – this time for alleged breach of duty.

Unhappy, he took his former employer to court in Germany to claim his basic pay and expenses. He also wanted a court declaration that his termination was invalid.

Meanwhile, the treasure hunters, who had renamed their company Rickshaw Investments, found a buyer.

Around April last year, after months of negotiations, they sold the collection of 53,000 pieces to the Sentosa Leisure Group, a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

But after the sale, Rickshaw apparently found out that when Mr von Uexkull was its marketing agent, he had allegedly disclosed price-sensitive information to Sentosa, then only a potential buyer.

Last June, Rickshaw and its predecessor Seabed sued him in Singapore for breach of confidentiality.

They are also accusing him of deceit for making misrepresentations to his employer, withholding information from the company, and not returning 25 pieces of the treasure which were samples used to show potential buyers.

They are claiming between US$12m and US$44m from him.


It is understood that 60 pieces of the treasure trove have been on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum since last June. It is the first public showcase of the artefacts. Earlier, there were only private showings.

A Sentosa spokesman told The New Paper that the group had proceeded with the purchase after seeking significant international and local legal counsel. She added that Sentosa is not involved in the lawsuits.

The last of the 53,000 pieces of the collection arrived in Singapore last December.

They are housed on a private floor in the new Hua Song Museum, within Haw Par Villa in Pasir Panjang. Viewings are by appointment only.

For S’pore or German court to decide?

WHERE should the battle be fought?

Singapore or Germany?

Rickshaw Investments wants the case to be heard in Singapore because most of the dealings took place here.

Its lawyer, Mr Cavinder Bull, a leading litigator in Drew & Napier , argued that the witnesses in this case are mostly based in Singapore and that the alleged misconduct by Mr Nicolai Baron von Uexkull also happened here.

But Mr von Uexkull wants the case to be heard in Germany, where he filed his suit .

His lawyer, Mr Leung Wing Wah, argued that both parties had agreed that German law would apply to his employment contract.

He added that all the parties are also German nationals.

Rickshaw won the first round of this dispute.

But for now, Mr von Uexkull has the upper hand.

In a written judgment released last month , Justice Woo Bih Li ruled that the case be heard in Germany as German law governs Rickshaw’s claims.

He added: ‘Although a Singapore court may apply foreign law, it is preferable if the court most familiar with that law deals with the dispute.’

Rickshaw has since filed an appeal, which will be heard by the Singapore Court of Appeal in July.


Posted by: Non-Han Nan Ban Oct 12 2006, 03:03 AM

This is a great find! It would definitely fit well with my China Maritime Timeline thread in the General History Forum.


Posted by: Yun Oct 12 2006, 03:39 AM

Belitung island lies near Palembang in Sumatra, which is believed to be the site of the trading empire of Srivijaya. Belitung is also on the route between the South China Sea and Java. So the 9th-century ship could have been carrying the cargo to either Srivijaya or the Sailendra kingdom in central Java (the one that built Borobodur).

Hopefully Singaporeans will soon get to see more of the 53,000 pieces.


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