Titanic Salvage – Has the Wreck Been Picked Clean?

Has the Titanic been plundered by looters?  The question is raised by Titanic enthusiasts who are worried that with modern technology, and no one to guard the Titanic, there is every possibility that greed and a hungry market for Titanic memorabilia is threatening the wreck site.

Only one company is legally allowed to remove items from the wreck of the Titanic.  It is RMS Titanic, the company that owns the Artifacts Exhibit, now on in Winnipeg, Las Vegas, and several other locations.

Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic on September 1st, 1985, has remained greatly opposed to the recovery of objects from the wreck site. The way the law works, the first person to remove an item from a shipwreck has the opportunity to make a legal claim to salvage the site.   Dr.  Ballard took nothing but pictures away from Titanic, and lost the opportunity to protect her from the removal of artifacts that subsequently followed in a number of expeditions.  Something close to 6,000 items have been catalogued by the salvage company.

Dr. Ballard returned to Titanic in 2004 and was dismayed to learn of the damage that has been caused to the wreck by submarines visiting the wreck site.  In this video clip, an excerpt from “Titanic Revealed”, a program produced for the  National Geographic channel, Dr. Ballard expresses his concerns about the Titanic being torn apart by looters, motivated by profiting on the keen interest in Titanic items.  Ballard explains how cameras trained on the wreck could not only protect Titanic, but could bring the entire world to the Titanic in real time.

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Salvaging Titanic Artifacts – Grave Robbing or Preserving History?

Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition opened in Winnipeg  amid much excitement from Titanic enthusiasts. To gaze upon a plate, imagine walking up the grand staircase, and to learn how the ship proclaimed by the press to be “unsinkable” was so quickly taken by the sea are tantalizing thoughts indeed.

Over 22 million people have seen the RMS Titanic exhibit since it first came to the public a decade and a half ago. The exhibit could not exist without the salvage efforts.

But is this grave robbing or preserving history?

As this video clip shows us, without doubt, the interest in Titanic is raising a consciousness and curiosity that is both awe inspiring and profound.

Fifteen hundred people on Titanic died in that cold night, on April 14/15th, 1912. It was the world’s largest and most elegant ship. Titanic was carrying more than 2200 people on its maiden voyage, and it was doomed. On its fourth night at sea, it struck an iceberg and in less than three hours, it broke apart and sank. Only 705 people made it to New York on the rescue vessel, the Carpathia, after spending the night in lifeboats.

But how is it that these artifacts have come to the surface to be placed in a traveling exhibit? Who owns them? Who has the right to make money on them?

Simple questions with complicated answers, steeped in controversy and, many would say, a good deal of greed.

“I opened a Pandora’s box,” said Dr. Ballard who took nothing but images and spine tingling memories away from the wreck site when he discovered it in 1985. The respect he paid to the Titanic was heartfelt and true. It was also costly, in his mind. It was just two years later that the first artifact was scooped off of the ocean floor, setting in motion a series of events that would forever allow the path for disturbing and dismantling the Titanic’s resting place on the ocean floor.

The first salvage operation, which brought 1,500 items out of the wreck site, was conducted by a group of private companies. The details are described in a posting by Titanic-Titanic.com.

Today, there is only one company that has the right to the Titanic salvage operations: RMS Titanic, Inc., which is owned by Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, Georgia. It bought that exclusive privilege from the other salvage operators who were involved in the 1987 visit to Titanic. The company does not, at this time, have the right to sell any of the items they salvage. Auction items that are gathered by private collectors come from memorabilia that was either possessed by passengers, or found floating on the ocean in 1912. The purists among Titanic collectors would frown, at least publicly, at the opportunity to acquire an item from the salvage operation.

In answer to the question of how the traveling exhibition company came to have the sole right to the artifacts, RMS Titanic has posted this on their website:

“On June 7, 1994 the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia declared RMST salvor-in-possession of the wreck and wreck site of the RMS Titanic, excluding all others from going to the site for the purpose of recovery. RMST is the only entity that has recovered and conserved items from the Titanic.”

The RMS Titanic company says it has completed eight salvage missions at the wreck site, the most recent being in the summer of 2010.

The salvage operations have had both supporters and critics from the outset. Eva Hart, one of the Titanic survivors, who was on her way to Winnipeg with her parents, was quite outspoken about her objection to removing anything from the wreck. She considered it to be the gravesite of the victims, including her father, Benjamin Hart.

Dr. Robert Ballard feels the same way. In a 2004 interview, he lamented having lost the opportunity to protect Titanic from salvage, saying, “It’s ironic that had I taken something, it would have been mine.”

Others believe important historical objects will be lost forever if not placed in museums.

It is interesting to note that the exhibition company that carries sole salvor rights to the Titanic does not count the Titanic exhibit as its only moneymaker. The company has another exhibit that has proven to be a strong source of revenue for the parent company. It is called “The Bodies”.

One does not have to look very deeply into the operations of the company behind the Titanic exhibit to discover a compelling story about driving profits. Salvaging Titanic, human bodies on display, and cutthroat battles in courtrooms make for fascinating reading.

One final word. As you watch the documentary called Titanic Revealed, you may notice in the video that musician Rick Springfield shows off his Titanic treasure. He apparently paid a lot of money for a plaque from a Titanic lifeboat. In the video we clearly see it says S.S. Titanic. But, the Titanic was called the RMS Titanic, which stood for the Royal Mail Ship Titanic.

I suppose it is possible that the lifeboat plaques were misnamed. If someone has further information on this, please do let us know.

For more information on this topic:

To learn more about the battle for ownership, start with this 2005 news article by Jeff Testerman, of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

The legal summary of how RMS Titanic won its right to be sole salvor is described here: