Secret chamber of lost treasures

JOHOR BARU - It was like entering a secret chamber filled with treasures such as ancient maps, scrolls, old currencies and antique ceramics.

Nobody would have thought that such a priceless collection was hidden in a small nook within a fishing village in Kota Tinggi district.

This private museum is accessible only to a select few.

Its businessman owner was suspicious of us but later agreed to show us his collection after we convinced him we were antique collectors.

"I understood the worth of antiques from a young age. I used to cheat my friends by offering them five sen for whatever old coins that they could find at home," he quipped.

Every piece he bought had a story behind it, he said, claiming that he even owned a rare coin minted in Malacca in 1621.

The collection - divided into several sections - starts with the less expensive items to the most priceless.

The "cheaper" collection includes a 1950 vintage car, several British-made motorycles, a dentist chair and a barber chair from the 1960s, shelves full of antique radios, coal-fired irons, weighing scales, stand fans and even a collection of old school coffee pots.

The rarer items include animal-shaped currency and money tree coins minted in the 15th century locked inside glass cabinets.

Another shelf was filled with ceramics which he claimed dated back to the Ming Dynasty.

"I bought them after hearing that they emerged from Sungai Johor following the Kota Tinggi floods in 2006 and 2007.

"These are rare pieces as they are not chipped or damaged," he said, adding that no museum in Johor had such a collection.

He boasted that his most priceless item was a RM10mil handwritten Quran.

Asked how he managed to purchase such rare items, he claimed it was done through friends, business associates and contacts in the region.

According to sources, most of these transactions were done quietly with collectors sending out their own "runners" to find antiques.

Sometimes, the runners are also sent to riverbanks where they purchase items, which have been accidentally hauled up by fishermen or uncovered during projects conducted along Sungai Johor.

"One of my runners spoke of how they could scoop up bowls full of old coins from the area. I'm sure that more precious items were found but were never surrendered to the authorities," said an antique dealer who declined to be named.

The dealer showed us a briefcase hidden at the back of his shop, which was filled with rare animal-shaped tin currency.

There were at least 20 animal currency in the shape of a rooster, crocodile, tortoise and even a dragon.

In the olden days, a crocodile-shaped currency could be bartered for a cow while a rooster could purchase 100 kati of rice.

We then travelled about 80km to a village in Johor Lama where we met residents who were familiar with the discovery of artefacts.

One of them, Ab Manan Atan, 53, said Johor Lama was previously the seat of the old Johor Sultanate and that it was a trading centre among local and foreign traders.

"Due to this, there are a lot of artefacts, coins, pottery, weapons and many other historical items which are buried or have sunk into the waters here," he said.

spoke of a time when "experts" were brought in to conduct meditation (bertapa) there.

"Believe it or not, I swear I saw with my own eyes how a keris and a large copper bowl suddenly appeared during one of the rituals," he said.

Johor Lama, he said, was previously the seat of the old Johor Sultanate and that it was a trading centre among local and foreign traders.

"Due to this, there are a lot of artefacts, coins, pottery, weapons and many other historical items which are buried or have sunk into the waters here," he said.