"Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds," scheduled to open in 2012, contains artifacts hauled up from an Arab dhow that sank to the bottom of the Java Sea in the 9th century, AAAS ScienceMag.org reported Thursday.
The wreck was salvaged in the late 1990s by a private German company, Seabed Explorations GbR, and critics charge its divers did not adhere to professional archaeological standards while recovering the artifacts.
Among the finds are glazed ceramics, lead ingots and intricately worked vessels of silver and gold from the Tang Dynasty.
Most of the objects were sold in 2005 to a company in Singapore for a reported $32 million.
While such commercialization of ancient artifacts is not against the laws of Indonesia -- in whose territorial waters the dhow was found -- many archaeologists say "mining" sunken ships for profit violates the field's standard ethical guidelines.
Even some in the Smithsonian are unhappy with the planned exhibit.
"I think this exhibition would send a very bad message to the public, that the Smithsonian doesn't stand for the preservation of archaeological resources and that mining archaeological sites is OK," said Bruce Smith, curator of North American history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Julian Raby, director of the gallery where the artifacts will be exhibited, defended the exhibit.
"There are bound to be divergent opinions," Raby said, "and I feel that the Smithsonian should not flinch from controversial exhibitions."