In the lore surrounding hidden treasures, the gods often see fit to subject the treasure hunter to a long quest before he finds the objects of his desire. Treasure hunter Klaus Keppler knows that only too well. For years, the owner of a salvage company has been looking for the wrecks of ships that had been carrying gold, silver or china. Recently, after a long dry spell, he got lucky. Twice.
Keppler — who has recovered a 10th-century wreck and the Forbes, a British vessel that ran aground in 1806, off Indonesia — contentedly surveys his treasures in a Jakarta port storehouse, holding up a huge lump of silver coins. “Hurry up, this thing is incredibly heavy,” the 70-year-old German urges a photographer, but with a big smile on his face.
The divers of his salvage ship, the Maruta Jaya, have recovered many kilograms of silver coins from the Forbes, as well as cannon, gold jewelry, crystal, silverware and 400 bottles of wine. “Those gentlemen on board knew how to live well,” he says.
Especially the many different coins will sell well, he believes, spinning a large one between his fingers: “One coin can be worth between $50 and several thousand.”
This is even more the case if the history of the artifact is known. Keppler hired a young man to scour archives around the world for information about the Forbes.
The vessel sailed the seas under a commission from the British king, a kind of pirate ship with a royal permit. It ran aground on a reef off Belitung Island, between Borneo and Sumatra, en route to India on Sept. 9, 1806.
Captain Frazer Sinclair and his crew survived. The Mampango reef was only charted five years later.
Upstairs in Keppler’s storehouse, four archaeology students measure, photograph and describe every recovered coin and enter the results in a databank.
“Everything gets documented,” Keppler says. Officials from various Indonesian ministries who must accompany every search trip make sure that no treasures are squirreled away.
The Indonesian state receives 50 percent of all revenues derived from the treasure hunts in its territory. While it is rumored among treasure hunters that some officials are not adverse to cutting individual deals, the searchers also eye each other with mistrust.
“Eighty percent are scoundrels and mountebanks,” Keppler says.
Apart from the revenue, Indonesia’s interest is limited, as is obvious with the second wreck Keppler found in a depth of 50 meters off Java Island, says Horst Liebner, an expert on Malay culture and history.
“The Karawang wreck is from the 10th century,” Liebner says. “In Germany, such a find would be a sensation, but in Indonesia, not a single archaeologist stopped by to have a look.
Liebner dated the wreck with the help of Chinese lead coins from the Min dynasty, which fell in 947. Divers also recovered vases, ewers and plates. “It’s a time capsule,” he enthuses.
So far, the treasure hunters have not become rich. The flotilla of salvage ships, equipment, divers and storage all needed to be financed in advance, long before any promising finds were on the horizon.
Therefore, investors attracted by a sense of adventure are welcome.
But occasionally, there is a wreck that fulfills the treasure hunter’s hopes. “We checked out about 70 wrecks here, but only five of them are probably worth it,” Keppler says.
The money only starts coming in when a buyer is found. Keppler’s team is in negotiations with Chinese museums over the Karawang treasure, which he hopes will bring in 1.4 million euros ($1.98 million), with salvage costs amounting to 600,000 euros.
The Forbes might prove more profitable, netting 5 million to 10 million euros, with 400,000 euros in salvage costs. “There are more than 30 million coin collectors worldwide,” says Keppler, who admits to be more fond of modern currency himself.
But in the end, he is in it for the search — his eyes already set on future wrecks to be discovered.