Missing the boat on shipwreck treasures

Lucien de Guise, curator of the Malaysian Museum of Islamic Arts, writes a column about the sale of shipwreck treasures in Malaysia.

12 July 2007 (New Straits Times) – Lucien de Guise, curator of the Malaysian Museum of Islamic Arts, writes a column about the sale of shipwreck treasures in Malaysia.

Missing the boat on shipwreck treasures

JUST in case anyone thought that the last discussion about fakes was the end of the series, it was actually the beginning.
My email inbox is once again filling up with opportunities to detect the bad boys in a ceramics collection.

A short time after Peter Lam came from Hong Kong at the request of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society to talk about “Detecting the Fakes”, we now have Roxanna Brown of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum of Bangkok giving her expertise on ceramic dates. In addition, there is Sten Sjostrand on the subject of “How to Identify Real Antiques from Fakes”.

It’s no wonder Malaysia is so interested in fakes. The nation is Public Enemy Number One in the all-round piracy league table, after China of course. On a per-capita basis, Malaysia is a clear winner.

It seems that the word “fake” has an irresistible attraction. If the talks were called “Kiln Technology of the 16th Century”, the turnout would be comparatively small. Issue a proper challenge, such as identifying fakes, and the people will beat a path to your lecture hall.
A bigger challenge is getting collectors to take an interest in the things that are being faked, including shipwreck ceramics. Nobody has tried harder than Sten Sjostrand. Facing the angry seas, he has recovered countless sunken cargoes and the barnacles that come with them. He has lectured endlessly on the subject, staged exhibitions and recently co-written a book.

Taking things to another level, Sten has introduced a subliminal message. Sharp-eyed visitors to Aquaria at KLCC will notice that there is more to look at than the fish. There are fragments of old Chinese ceramics littering the floors of the Aquaria tanks.

There can’t be many fish tanks in the world that use genuine shipwreck parts from half a millennium ago. Malaysia is the last place you would expect to find anything so authentic. Some of the fish may look like they are dead or clockwork, but the bits of broken pottery are the real thing. They are also for sale, or at least some closely related items are. You don’t need to be so sharp-eyed to spot the stall selling these wares on your way out.

Read the full editorial, Missing the boat on shipwreck treasures.

Books about shipwrecks and ancient maritime trade in Southeast Asia:
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells
Oriental trade ceramics in Southeast Asia, 10th to 16th century: Selected from Australian collections, including the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Bodor Collection by J. Guy

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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