Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Adventures of Captain Hatcher: Ethical Salvaging on the High Seas?

Yesterday marked another important event in the life and career of one Captain Mike Hatcher, namely the public auction by Lawsons (Australia's premier auctioneers since 1884) of 200 pieces from his personal collection of artifacts salvaged from shipwrecks. Consisting mostly of Chinese blue and white porcelain, celadon, white glaze, earthenware, and various metal and stone artifacts, it (according to a press release) charts his own "voyage of discovery." Although sales results are not available yet, I would not be surprised if all of the pieces offered were sold, or will later be sold through various small online galleries (e.g. here). The photo at left shows just a few of the artifacts available for purchase yesterday. The divers helmet alone fetched $900-1200 dollars!

No mention is given in the press release as to what will happen to the proceeds after auction house commission is taken; i.e. no charity is mentioned upfront (unlike a previous small-scale auction of Tek Sing artifacts in Vanuatu, with proceeds going to an emergency medical services charity). Previous auctions of artifacts salvaged from his diving adventures have sold at Nagel (Stuttgart, 1999) and Christie's (Amsterdam, 1985), for sums as high as US $20 million, helping to fund future efforts and further media attention. However, his press coverage to date has not been entirely positive, and real questions have been (continue to be) raised regarding his methods, and the very nature of maritime "salvage" work as a whole.

Some background is now in order to put this auction into context. Publicly known as the "salvage king," Hatcher is the well known operator of a commercial salvage company working in the Asia-Pacific region since the 1980s. In earlier years he was instrumental in the "salvage" of several high-profile wrecks. These include the Tek Sing (360,000 pieces of porcelain, as well as allegedly undisturbed human remains), the Dutch K XVIII class submarine, and more porcelain from the Geldersmalen (aka the Nanking Cargo), and several smaller wrecks.

However, controversy and doubt began to be raised almost immediately after the Geldersmalen was salvaged, with investigations by Indonesian authorities, threats of five years of jail time and large fines, and the eventual arrest of Australians Christopher Woolgrove and Lawrence James Phillips for their fleecing of investors through creation of the dummy company "Hatcher Unit Trust." Affiliation with Captain Hatcher's personal commercial enterprise was claimed; a fact which Hatcher continues to deny. Chinese authorities and archaeologists have also questioned his methods and the spike in small-scale maritime looting his large finds have inspired, even while acknowledging his role in initiating marine archaeological research off their coast.

The fact remains that, regardless of whether or not Indonesia continues to "let him in through the front door," maritime treasure hunting, also referred to as salvaging, and related to the practice of "wrecking" (recovering items from on or near-shore wrecks) remains fraught with ethical issues. Despite some large for-profit companies hiring self-identified archaeologists and marketing directors to lend an air of validity to their activities and handle the press, this is still primarily a profit driven industry. This is why private dealers and investors invest and real questions about provenance can dog even the most well-meaning museum curators arranging high profile exhibits (see the ongoing controversy over the Monsoon Winds exhibit in the Smithsonian for one example). Its image isn't helped when key individuals like Hatcher describe the discovery of gold cargo as "this is the dream of every diver, the classical children's story of shipwrecks and hidden treasures. It is already an adventure in itself to see such a fairytale come true."

These days, numerous scholarly articles, books, websites, and even entire archaeology departments (here and here) exist to continuously reiterate the point that conducting a context-driven excavation is possible even deep below the sea, and that this involves more than just counting how many pieces of eight or porcelain cups your wreck contains. Although an operation like Hatcher's is admittedly not as difficult for authorities to monitor as smaller-scale treasure hunting operations conducted by local fishermen in many parts of Southeast Asia would be (e.g. here), I have yet to read any statement released by Hatcher himself that comfortably puts to rest the legitimate concerns of archaeologists when dealing with any for-profit salvage operation.

I have, however, received personal communication from a source in the media that Hatcher was overseas (literally) for several days before yesterday's auction took place, thus this colleague's scheduled interview could not go ahead. This is a shame, as it would be nice to have an update from the Captain now that one more private auction has occurred. Can he provide demonstrable proof that everything removed and sold was done so according to best practice? We'll see...

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