Artefacts from historic shipwreck returned to the Indonesian Government

White ceramic cups on a table.

Editor’s note: Images of the Tek Sing Ceramics are available via Hightail

Hundreds of culturally significant artefacts from an historic Asian shipwreck that were offered for sale online before being seized under Australian legislation have been returned to the Indonesian Government.

In 2019, The AFP’s INTERPOL National Central Bureau (INTERPOL Canberra) received a formal request for assistance from the Office of the Arts after a number of porcelain objects that had been salvaged from the Tek Sing shipwreck were advertised for sale on a Perth online marketplace.

INTERPOL Canberra, Office of the Arts and AFP Western Command then initiated a joint investigation into these objects with AFP Western Command finally seizing 333 objects on 9 March 2022 under the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act 1986

The Tek Sing, which was a 60m-long junk with about 1500 people on board, sank in the South China Sea off the Indonesian coast in 1822.

About 350,000 pieces of porcelain were recovered from the wreck after it was discovered in 1999 by a private treasure-salvaging company. These latest objects were removed in a subsequent dive.

Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke, returned six of the items today (17 August 2022) to Ambassador for the Republic of Indonesia, his Excellency Dr Siswo Pramono, at a ceremony at the Indonesian Embassy Canberra marking the declaration of Indonesian Independence.

Deputy Commissioner Brett Pointing said the AFP invests leading investigative capability against the trade in illicit export of culturally significant artefacts.

“We maintain liaison officers at 35 International Posts in 29 countries, who work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners overseas to identify and stop historical items reaching and being sold on the black market, Deputy Commissioner Pointing said.

“Today’s handover of these culturally significant artefacts is an excellent example of the collaborative work done by the AFP and other law enforcement agencies to disrupt the trading and selling of items which represent a link to a countries culture and historical past.”

His Excellency Dr Siswo Pramono, Ambassador for the Republic of Indonesia said “We would like to express our appreciation to all related institutions from both countries for the excellent collaboration in saving this cultural heritage and returning it to Indonesia. The handover process today will be the third time after 2006 and 2018 and it is a concrete evidence of our strategic partnership, especially in the area of inter-cultural and law enforcement.

The return of these 333 Tek Sing ceramics also serves as a great present for the celebration of 77th Indonesian Independence. Let us keep working hand-in-hand and be part for the better relations between Indonesia and Australia."

The AFP’s Western Command are coordinating return of the rest of the historical pieces to the Indonesian Government.

More information on Australia's laws referring to the import and export of cultural heritage can be found on the Office for the Arts website.

INTERPOL Works of Art Mobile Application

In 2021, INTERPOL launched its mobile app "ID-Art" to identify stolen cultural property and art, reduce illicit trafficking, and increase the chances of recovering stolen items. Publicly available, the App introduces new audiences to INTERPOL's Stolen Works of Art database, which contains more than 52,000 objects from 134 member countries.

ID-Art can be used by police officers, custom officials, the general public, private collectors, art dealers, journalists, students or art enthusiasts to:

  • Access the INTERPOL database of Stolen Works of Art to check if an object is registered as stolen
  • Create an inventory of private art collections
  • Report an item as stolen
  • Report cultural sites potentially at risk or illicit excavations

You can download ID-Art free of charge for Apple and Android mobile devices.

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