Captain Michael Hatcher, a Real Life Indiana Jones, Sells Sunken Treasure at Australian Auction

Captain Michael Hatcher, a Real Life Indiana Jones, Sells Sunken Treasure at Australian Auction
(Capt. Mike Hatcher )

The Sale

The personal collection of famed English-born, Australia based treasure hunter and salvage diver Capt. Mike Hatcher went to auction in Australia on Friday the 17th of February.  Sold by Sydney auction house Lawsons Auctioneers, the sale consisted of the items that furnished the Captain’s home and chart his own voyage of discovery. 

Battling piracy, sharks and political upheaval, the story of Capt. Mike Hatcher, the celebrated shipwreck salver, is a rare and interesting insight into social history on an international scale.  Hatcher was responsible for two of the biggest shipwreck finds of the 20th century, the cargoes of which have both attained high prices at auction and provided valuable scholarly information.

In 1999, Hatcher laid claim to the largest find of porcelain in history. The immense treasure recovered - in excess of 350,000 pieces of Chinese blue & white porcelain, most in impeccable condition – was recovered from the Chinese Junk Tek Sing in the South China Sea.  

Highlights from the Lawsons sale include one of the first objects recovered from the Tek Sing by Captain Hatcher, a 19cm diameter Peking Glass Bowl, Qianlong Period, modelled in red and yellow tones with a four character mark to base, which sold for AUD$3,000 against an estimate of AUD$1,500-2,000.  An unusual Chinese Sectional Blue and White Porcelain Vase painted with scenes of figures in a seascape, bearing 6 character Wanli Mark and possibly period, also from the Tek Sing, sold for AUD$5,000 against an estimate of AUD$2,000-3,000.

A piece of the actual Tek Sing wreck in the form of an 18th/19th Century Chinese Bronze Cannon blitzed the $1,500-2,000 estimate and achieved one of the highest bids of the the sale with a final selling price of $5,000.  The biggest surprise of the sale was the AUD$3,000 paid for three barnacle-encrusted 18th Century Dutch Saltglazed Bellarmines which were estimated to sell for $300-500. 

According to Shauna Farren-Price of Lawsons, the most notable thing about the sale was that the Asian buyers are very interested in the condition of things, preferring to buy pristine rather than patinated by the sea. Completely the opposite to the non-asians in the room who loved all the barnacles and coral – quite a marked distinction indeed! 

The entire auction catalogue can be viewed here

The Captain

Captain Hatcher has become the most successful salvor of recent years. His achievements are the envy of many who are involved in this industry. Michael has a total of over 80 wrecks that he has salvaged. He can be seen in many films, documentaries and books, which depict him as the most successful treasure hunter of the day.

Hatcher, who grew up in an English orphanage, set up a commercial salvage company in Australia in 1970 to locate World War II merchantmen and warships and to retrieve their cargoes of tin, rubber and scrap metal. After a discovery of 22,000 pieces of intact Ming Dynasty porcelain from an old Asian trading ship in the China Sea, which netted millions of dollars, he now focuses entirely on old shipwrecks.

The Finds

The well documented salvaged cargo from the wreck of the Nan King sold at Christies in Amsterdam in 1985 and attracted significant media attention, raising $20m. The large Chinese Junk the Tek Sing or ‘True Star’ was a maritime disaster of epic proportions and has come to be labelled the Titanic of the East, with a greater loss of life. The cargo of over 350,000 pieces of porcelain ranging from 15th -19th century in date, a bronze cannon (lot 50) and other precious items was bound for Jakarta in 1822 intended for the South East Asian market.  Hatcher and his crew salvaged the Tek Sing in 1999 and the cargo was auction in November 2000 by Nagel in Stuttgart.

There were nearly 2,000 people on board when it sank in 1822 with a loss of life greater than that on the Titanic. Its excavation has yielded the largest and most varied cargo of porcelain ever salvaged, with pieces dating from the fifteenth through to the nineteenth century. It is also the only Chinese junk that has ever been found where it has proved possible to discover the story behind the sinking. The Tek Sing was one of the last of the great Chinese ocean-going junks - part of a tradition stretching back to the days of Zheng He and the legendary Treasure Ships.

What emerges is a dramatic tale encompassing both treachery and heroism, arrogance and greed, played out against a background of opium smuggling, piracy and mass emigration.

The Tek Sing (True Star) set sail from China, bound for Java, in 1822. She was heavily laden with Chinese porcelain, 1,600 passengers (mostly living outside on deck) and 200 crew.

After 24 days she struck a reef, and quickly sank, taking more lives than even the Titanic disaster 90 years later. In 1999, salvage diver Captain Mike Hatcher found the wreck and recovered her porcelain cargo - the largest ever discovery of its kind, and in remarkably good condition.

Bowls and dishes predominated, mostly in the blue-and-white patterns that graced the tables of 19th century Europe and have gained in popularity ever since.

Amongst many successful finds, one of the most publicised was the Geldermalsen, an East Indiaman that sailed from Nanking with 239,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain and 45 kg of gold ingots. At the time, it was the greatest collection of Chi’ing Dynasty porcelain ever found—more than 170,000 pieces in pristine condition. Hatcher sold about half of the collection at the auction through Christie’s in Amsterdam. The sale netted in excess of US$25 million with the greater part going to his investors.

The Log Book

May 10, 1999. Captain Mike Hatcher’s salvage boat, the Restless M, is making routine surveys of the sea-bed off Java.

Another monotonous day of chugging up and down the sea, monitoring the detection instruments.

(“Mowing the lawn,” it’s called in the salvage business.) A slight blip on the side-scan sonar. A flicker on the magnetometer. Nothing, probably. Still, it couldn’t hurt to send some divers for a quick look.

What the divers find proves to be the remains of the Tek Sing, a Chinese merchant ship wrecked 178 years earlier while trying to escape from pirates (Nearly 1,800 lives lost, more than on the Titanic, but no worldwide headlines; only the log book of an obscure English captain who rescued a few survivors records the actual events.)

...and there, 100 feet down on the sea-bed before them, amazingly well-preserved, is the largest cargo of antique Chinese porcelain ever discovered.

**Biography, Log Book and Find History sourced from A letter from Captain Michael Hatcher, June 2009.