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A Chinese porcelain bowl, dating from about 1580, was recovered from a shipwreck off the Indonesian coast.

Priceless porcelain under the sea

400-year-old goods from China resting off Indonesia shore

Bloomberg News photos
“We want to draw attention to the crazy speed at which these treasures are vanishing,” says Nikolaus Graf Sandizell, left, CEO of Arqueonautas, a marine archaeology company.

– 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, Indonesia. Stacked 25 feet high in places, they are strewn over an area the size of a hockey rink, 200 feet below the surface and 100 miles from the coast.

Nikolaus Graf Sandizell, chairman and chief executive of the Portuguese marine-archaeology company Arqueonautas Worldwide, 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 architects 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 $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. “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, Sandizell said. 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 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.”