Indonesia investigates undersea treasure hunter

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Indonesia is investigating treasure hunter Michael Hatcher for allegedly plundering an undersea trove and trying to smuggle porcelain, an official said Thursday.

Fisheries ministry official Adji Sularso said the probe came after authorities seized 2,360 items dating from the Chinese Ming dynasty.

"There are strong indications that Michael Hatcher has been involved in an illegal shipwreck salvage in Blanakan waters," he told reporters.

The porcelain was loaded in two ships that were intercepted in waters off West Java in September, he added.

Hatcher, who was reportedly born in Britain but grew up as an orphan in Australia, has excavated shipwrecks in Indonesia since the mid-1980s.

"If he's proven guilty, he could be jailed for five years and fined 50 million rupiah (5,500 dollars)," Sularso said.

Indonesian officials said Hatcher made 17 million dollars from auctioning gold ingots and 160,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain salvaged from wreck found in the Riau islands in the mid-1980s.

They said he had already started to market items recovered from his latest wreck.

Another salvage team headed by Belgian undersea fossicker Luc Heymans is offering 270,000 pieces of 1,000-year-old treasure found off Java in 2003 at an auction in Jakarta next week.

The haul of porcelain, jewels, crystals and ornaments originating from north Africa to China has a minimum bid price of 80 million dollars, with the proceeds to be split evenly between the private salvagers and the Indonesian government.

© 2010 AFP

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