Retrieval of Titanic Artifacts Stirs Controversy

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Society
April 12, 2002

Ninety years ago this week, the world's most famous ocean liner sank to a frigid grave in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 passengers and crew lost their lives on the Titanic's maiden voyage, and a culture of myth and controversy emerged that shows no signs of abating.

For years, the stories of survivors and rescuers were the only links to the famous event. But in September 1985, the ship's story took a dramatic turn when the wreck was finally found under 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) of water near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

The joint U.S.-French team that located the ship, led by the expert underwater explorer Bob Ballard, initiated a new and often contentious era of Titanic history.

Since the discovery, debate has raged over the increasing number of visits to the wreck site, and the removal of historic artifacts from the area.

Titanic china has been exhibited in museums. Video footage of the site was part of James Cameron's blockbuster film Titanic. Even pieces of coal from the ship have turned up for sale as commemorative keepsakes.

"This past summer, a couple in a submersible took their wedding vows on the deck," said Ballard, adding: "It's kind of over the top."

Artifacts from the Deep

After Ballard and his team located the ship, they returned in July of 1986 to explore the wreck in three-person submersibles. The team took pictures to document the ship's condition and investigate its sinking, but recovered no artifacts. In fact, the team left a commemorative plaque requesting that the site be left undisturbed as a memorial to the dead.

But the period of peace lasted for only about a year. In 1987, a controversial salvage operation set up as a limited partnership retrieved china, jewelry, and other artifacts from the luxury liner and exhibited them in Paris. The venture was subsequently sold to a company called RMS Titanic Inc.

In 1994, a U.S. district court gave RMS Titanic Inc. sole authority over the salvage and ownership of any items recovered from the Titanic based on a legal precept called salvor-in-possession rights.

Dik Barton, a vice president of RMS Titanic Inc., said the company salvages the ship's artifacts for exhibition. The company has made six expeditions to the site and recovered more than 6,000 artifacts from the seafloor.

The relics include such notable items as the ship's bell and whistles. Among other items also found in good condition were suitcases, silver, letters, and other personal effects.

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