Who Owns the Art Recovered From Shipwrecks?

A thought-provoking exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco draws on artifacts from two centuries-old shipwrecks

This concretion, recovered from the Hoi An shipwreck, alludes to the fate of artifacts left underwater. © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

A new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco takes a provocative look at the ethics of excavating shipwrecks from centuries past.

When the trading vessel Hoi An sank in the South China Sea in the 15th century, it left behind 250,000 ceramics. A few of those artifacts, along with others from a similarly submerged 19th-century vessel, the steamship Le Meï-kong, are now on view in “Lost at Sea: Art Recovered From Shipwrecks,” at the AAM. The curators of the exhibition pose to the public an array of thought-provoking questions: Who is entitled to centuries-old artworks recovered from shipwrecks? Should they even be excavated, or should vessels and their contents be left in situ for future generations?

Visitors are encouraged to answer these and other queries by adding Post-it notes to a wall of responses, per KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss.

“We want our audiences to ask questions about how artworks enter museum collections,” writes Natasha Reichle, assistant curator of Southeast Asian art at the museum, in a statement. “Lost at Sea” explores the paths artifacts trace from excavation to exhibit. In this case, notes the statement, the items were sold at auction and purchased by collectors who then donated them to the California museum.

Fragmentary dish with design of a winged horse dated to 1450–1500 Gift of David and Mary Bromwell © Asian Art Museum

Authorities first found the Hoi Ann after smugglers carrying suitcases full of ceramics through a Vietnamese airport were apprehended during the 1990s. To reach the vessel, the country’s government collaborated with an Oxford archaeology team and private salvage companies from Vietnam and Malaysia. Situated about 230 feet underwater, the wreck represented the deepest marine excavation ever attempted at the time of the first salvage attempt. Though the initial venture was canceled after the recovery ship was nearly capsized in a typhoon, the second attempt proved more successful.

Because the wreck was so deep, the only option for recovery was saturation diving. Per the Wall Street Journal’s Edward Rothstein, the team submerged three divers housed in a 12-foot-long diving bell near the wreck for 69 days. During this lengthy stint, the trio assessed and recovered artifacts including a fragmented dish bearing the likeness of a winged horse, a pear-shaped vase, and a blue-and-white lidded box.

“Some believe that nothing should be brought up. You should just look, record, and leave it there,” Reichle tells artnet News. “Some believe you can bring it up, but with only an academic crew. A third group believes that most countries cannot protect these sites from looting, and that excavations in conjunction with private–public [entities] are the only way of protecting and learning about these materials.” As explained by Rothstein, the exhibit seemingly embraces the “2001 Unesco convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage (post-dating the [shipwrecks] here) that affirms an obligation to preserve sites without disruption if possible, suggesting that only qualified archaeologists work on maritime excavations and forbidding discoveries to be 'commercially exploited for trade or speculation.'”

The second wreck featured in the show, Le Meï-kong, sank off the coast of Somalia in 1887 and was salvaged in 1995 by a joint expedition comprised of a private company, marine archaeologist Robert Sténuit and the Northeast Authority of the Republic of Somalia. At the time, Somalia was mired in civil war.

“Robert was negotiating with the faction that was in control of the northeast area of Somalia,” Reichle tells artnet News' Sarah Cascone. “The team needed to get armed guards to protect them, and to use dynamite to blow up the hull.”

The ill-fated ship’s final journey played out against the backdrop of France’s mid-19th century invasion of Vietnam. Le Meï-kong was one of two vessels carrying stone sculptures taken from the country by doctor Albert Morice, who was stationed at Vietnam’s French embassy. Almost all of the ship’s passengers survived the wreck, but the statues, created roughly 1,000 years ago and removed from Hindu and Buddhist shrines, sank with the steamer.

Architectural element with a multiheaded mythical serpent, approx. 1150–1250 Gift of Richard Beleson in honor of Hanni Forester © Asian Art Museum

These sculptures were originally made by the Cham, a group of people who lived in the region before it was Vietnam. Two Cham creations—a three-headed serpent and a ferocious female deity—are included in the exhibit.

“The people who produced these sculptures no longer have a state,” says Reichle to artnet News. “The Cham are now a diasporic community scattered throughout Southeast Asia. If one were to restitute the object, where would you even return it?”

The show’s centerpiece alludes to the fate of artifacts left in the sea. A grey stone protruding with ceramics and other artifacts, it was once covered in barnacles. Now, the mound, known as a concretion, is slowly disintegrating, revealing the objects hidden within—among others, a Chinese coin, a pair of deer antlers and the remains of sea creatures—as it crumbles.

Lost at Sea: Art Recovered From Shipwrecks” is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through March 22.

Editor's note, February 14, 2020: This story has been edited to clarify the laws and Unesco conventions on the excavation of underwater shipwrecks.

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