Battle rages over Titanic artefacts

The wreckage of the ship so famous it remains a metaphor nearly a century later is collapsing on itself more than 3km under water.

The ashes of the last survivor, a child of just nine weeks when the giant vessel went down, were scattered at sea last week after her death at 97. And the man who discovered the Titanic’s resting place has described its treatment in the years since as a “freak show”.

But still the legal battles go on over ownership of the vast liner swallowed by the North Atlantic in 1912 with 1522 lives on board.

This week a Virginia court began a hearing to decide the fate of thousands of artefacts recovered from the wreck. They have been given a value of more than $100-million (about R758-million) but have been described by American officials seeking to protect the find as “historical treasure” as worth far more than a dollar figure.

Establishing present-day ownership has led to complex court cases because the original owners of the British-registered liner have long since gone. The ship belonged to the White Star Line but, when that company was sold to Cunard, the Titanic was not part of the sale because it was considered unrecoverable.

After the wreck was discovered in 1985 by an oceanographer, Robert Ballard, various claimants emerged, including insurance companies that paid out to the survivors and the relatives of the dead nearly a century ago.

After a series of court battles an American company, RMS Titanic, emerged as the owner of the salvage rights, allowing it to keep possession and put on touring display the 5900 artefacts it has lifted during six dives.

But it does not own the wreck or the recovered items — from the ship’s whistle and children’s toys to a section of the hull. Another American judge ruled that RMST did not own the salvaged items outright because a “free finders-keepers policy is but a short step from active piracy and pillaging”.

RMST is owned by Premier Exhibitions, an Atlanta company. It says the Titanic exhibition has been viewed by 33-million people worldwide, including at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The judge in the case, Rebecca Beach Smith, a specialist in maritime law, has already said she believes the artefacts should remain a single collection and accessible to the public. “I am concerned that the Titanic is not only a national treasure, but in its own way an international treasure and it needs protection and it needs to be monitored,” she previously told lawyers in the case. RMST is considering a seventh dive next year. The last was in 2004.

Shortly after discovering the wreck, Ballard told a United States congressional hearing of his vision for its future: “Titanic is like a great pyramid which has been found and mankind is about to enter it for the first time since it was sealed. Has he come to plunder or appreciate? The people of the world clearly want the latter.”

Instead, Ballard has been angered by the treatment of the wreck, describing the repeated tourist dives, including of a New York couple who landed on the Titanic’s bow in a submersible to be married, as having turned what should have been a dignified monument to the dead into a “freak show at the county fair”.

Ballard is among scientists who believe the salvage operations and tourist dives are contributing to the final collapse of the wreckage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the remaining structure is likely to collapse within 50 years. —

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Chris Mcgreal
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