Subject: Dive duo home in on pirates’ sunken £50m

[Is this in East Timor waters or Indonesian or given that there is no agreed maritime boundary somewhere in between? And will either government get a share of the proceeds? - John]

From The Sunday Times (UK) August 2, 2009

Dive duo home in on pirates’ sunken £50m

Allan Hall in Berlin and Dewi Loveard in Jakarta

A French pirate ship, that preyed on rich merchant vessels in the seas around Indonesia in the early 19th century, has been tracked down by a German treasure hunting duo who believe it may have a cargo of gold on board worth more than £50m.

Martin Wenzel and Klaus Keppler estimate that the ship had been carrying a cargo of two tons of gold. Its value would far exceed their haul from a sunken British buccaneer, the Forbes, last December which yielded silver worth close to £7m.

Much depends on the gold coins aboard the new wreck off East Timor and their rarity, plus any additional riches which the raider may have picked up on her travels in the early 1800s.

“I can’t tell you its location for obvious reasons but we are very excited,” said Wenzel, 42, a self-made millionaire from former East Germany.

“We think we know where it lies exactly, near East Timor. We’ve found clues in shipping archives about its cargo of gold. But we don’t yet have the salvage licence. They are extremely expensive and the political situation there is difficult.”

He is scheduled to fly from Germany at the end of the month to supervise the search.

Wenzel is an unlikely treasure hunter in the waters off Indonesia. He grew up in the landlocked city of Weimar under communist rule. As a schoolboy he made a Jolly Roger flag while devouring books on pirates and their treasure.

After the fall of communism he made a fortune in property and gambling machines, allowing him to revive his boyhood dreams. In 2007, aged 40, he met up with Keppler, now 70, a fellow engineer and diving enthusiast.

They decided to get serious about the salvage business. One year later they founded Nautic Recovery Asia after investing close to £3m and set about scouring the seabed off the coast of Indonesia.

The Forbes, which ran aground on a reef off Belitung Island, between Borneo and Sumatra, on September 9, 1806, was discovered by accident. The crew of 50, including 25 divers, several ship hands, three Indonesian army soldiers aboard to ward off modern-day pirates and experts who study the maritime archives, was searching for another vessel called the Gypsy of London when the Forbes was found in 125ft of water.

“From the local fishermen we knew there was something like a reef with a lot of fish around there,” said Keppler. “Down went the diver and found it.”

Wenzel added: “We brought up wine still in bottles, gold jewellery, crystal, silverware and pewter plates. These men on board, they knew how to live well.”

The Forbes was captained by Frazer Sinclair, from Stromness, Orkney, and sailed under a commission from King George III - “a kind of pirate with a royal permit”, said Wenzel.

Sinclair and his crew survived the wreck after putting to sea in three lifeboats. The Forbes had carried opium and iron from Calcutta to the far east and was, according to the Asiatic Annual Register, on its way home carrying a “considerable amount” of loot and cargo. It met its fate shortly after the men boarded and looted a Dutch vessel, which ran aground at the same time.

The bounty from the Forbes, and from a Chinese trading vessel from the 10th century which yielded some 15,000 beautiful ceramic tiles, sits in a Jakarta storehouse under guard until buyers are found. Every artefact found is logged into a computer data-bank and the Indonesian government takes 50% of the profits.

It is rumoured among treasure hunters that local officials are not averse to cutting individual deals. But according to the team it is rival treasure hunters who must be watched most closely.

“We have to guard the area around the spot. If not, illegal divers will steal the goods,” said Keppler.

He hopes the Indonesian government will set up a museum from the remnants of the Forbes, which was a fine ship built in the Calcutta dockyards around 1802.

Horst Liebner, an expert on Malay culture and history, said the Chinese ship known as the Karawang Wreck was a “time capsule”.

He added: “In Germany such a find would be a sensation, but in Indonesia not a single archeologist stopped by to have a look.”

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