If you want to invest in gold, a 1 kilogram bar will set you back about US$40,000 at today’s prices – well beyond the means of most Indonesians. Sensing an opportunity, enterprising conmen have been selling phony gold bars for as little as Rp.5.25 million (US$390) apiece.
There’s no point in trying to sell impossibly cheap gold in Indonesia without some magical mumbo jumbo to lend credence to your sales pitch. Joni Sianturi, 47, a dukun (shaman) from Numbing village on Bintan Island, off the eastern coast of Sumatra, concocted an outlandish story to defraud the unwary.
He claimed to have had a recurring dream, in which an elderly man, hundreds of years old, revealed to him the secret location of an ancient treasure, conveniently buried outside houses in Numbing. He said the man informed him that only a person with special powers could recover the treasure. That’s not entirely unlike the story of the Mormon religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, who claimed an angel directed him to the location of a buried box containing gold plates from which the Mormon bible was transcribed.
Joni said he was ordered to uncover the treasure, which comprised gold bullion. He visited one house at a time, telling people his story and offering to recover the gold buried on their property, if they could pay a fee and provide some white cloth and some eucalyptus oil, the latter items just being for effect.
Attempting to convince people he could materialize gold, Joni performed a simple magic trick, using a white cloth as a prop. When unfolded, the cloth was empty. Then it would be rolled up and unfurled again, this time with ‘gold’ inside. At least five people took the bait during June, netting Joni more than Rp.94 million (US$7,000).
The dukun’s gold bars were imitations made from brass. Some were stamped with an inscription stating ‘Union Bank of Switzerland, Gold 999.9.’ Others had an engraving of founding president Sukarno and the logo of the colonial-era Dutch East India Company (VOC). There have long been conspiracy theories that Sukarno had a secret stash of gold worth trillions of dollars – either from the Japanese in return for wartime oil deals, or to set up a non-aligned world bank, or to prevent a fall in world gold prices – and the loot remains in Swiss bank accounts, or with the US Treasury or in Indonesian jungles.
Joni’s first victim, Mahyuni, handed over Rp.4 million (US$298) but received nothing because the amount was deemed too small for the magic to work. Another victim, Maksin, handed over three instalments of cash totalling Rp.45 million (US$3,350), for which he received three ‘gold’ bars. A third victim, Joyo, paid Rp.21 million (US$1,500) in return for four bars. Others handed over amounts ranging from Rp.7 million (US$522) to Rp.17.25 million (US$1,287).
After having the ‘gold’ tested, one of the victims complained to police, who arrested Joni at his house on the night of June 28 and seized dozens of fake gold bars.
East Bintan Police urged the public not to believe people offering cheap gold obtained through magic. They said people should be extremely careful and selective when buying gold either for investment or jewellery.
After his arrest, Joni denied committing fraud, insisting that only he had the necessary magical powers to locate and materialize real gold. Worryingly, some local media reports insinuated that supernatural powers could be real, rather than debunking such nonsense.
A similar stunt was pulled in the Central Java regency of Boyolali by a dukun named Taufik Saleh, 38. He claimed to have the power to materialize VOC gold out of thin air. He was arrested in June after defrauding his brother-in-law, Agus Wiyoto, to the tune of Rp.21 million (US$1,567).
Taufik conducted the scam back in 2015. First, he used sleight-of-hand magic to produce some money from a folded cloth. Next, he took Agus to a cemetery near Gombang village one night to perform a ritual involving incantations and spells. For dramatic effect, he stirred up some soil on a gravesite, causing thick white smoke to appear, from which he plucked two ‘VOC gold bars.’ The smoke appeared because the dukun had earlier concealed a bowl of hydrochloric acid, which reacted with the soil. The phony gold had also been hidden at the grave.
Much later, Agus had the ‘gold’ checked, only to learn it was fake. He reported the case to police, who arrested Taufik on June 9 and seized evidence including spells, ritual cloths and phony gold bars. The dukun admitted to being a fraud, saying he bought the bogus bullion at Triwindu Market in Solo and learned his magic tricks from YouTube videos.
In the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak, police in March arrested a dukun named Restu Wiliyanto, 32. His shtick was to show a blank yellow paper prayer scroll, like those used at Buddhist temples. He would fold up the scroll and pretend to hand it to his victim, but actually gave them a different scroll with written instructions. Victims were told to wait five minutes before unfolding the paper to reveal words ‘magically written’ by ‘supernatural beings.’
Restu said the holder must follow the instructions on the paper or else their family would suffer a disaster. Victims were instructed to hand over cash or to purchase gold bullion or sacred golden objects. These items were sold by Restu and were fake. Police said he had reaped at least Rp.103 million (US$7,687) since starting the scam in December 2015.
Another dukun who pretended to be able to create gold, Anton Hardianto, was on May 22 sentenced by Depok District Court in West Java to life imprisonment, not for any alchemy activities, but for murdering two of his clients by serving them cyanide-laced coffee. Anton had told the men, who were both aged in their 20s, he could double their gold by magic, but he ended up killing them in order to steal their Toyota Avanza car.
We can only look forward to the day when Indonesian parents and schools teach children that magic is nothing but trickery, and that get-rich-quick schemes involving the creation of gold will end only in misery.