Norfolk judge awards rights to Titanic artifacts
Essentially ending one of the area’s longest-running cases, a federal judge Monday granted title to thousands of artifacts from the doomed Titanic cruise liner to the company that plucked them from the ocean floor during six expeditions.
The long-awaited decision by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith means that RMS Titanic Inc. will own more than 3,000 Titanic artifacts but with the condition that they be maintained forever. They could be sold but only under limited conditions.
RMS Titanic Inc. has been battling in court for almost 20 years to get title to the artifacts that were lifted from the North Atlantic during company-run salvage operations. The items include china, jewelry, playing cards, musical instruments and even a large chunk of the ship’s hull.
The company had sought a salvage award of $110 million, the estimated net worth of the objects. The court could have ordered the artifacts auctioned to meet that price but instead gave the company control to market them for profit.
To make money, RMS Titanic’s parent company Premier Exhibitions Inc. has been holding exhibitions of the artifacts around the world. Exhibits are currently showing in Greensboro, N.C., Las Vegas, London and Brazil.
The ruling basically ends a two-decade court battle over salvage rights to the wreck site and ownership of the artifacts. In that time, the company nearly went bankrupt and has gone through two hostile takeovers.
Premier, based in Atlanta, issued a news release Monday stating that company officials were reviewing the decision and will issue a statement “as soon as possible.” Company lawyer Robert McFarland of Norfolk was traveling Monday and was unavailable.
The company already holds title to another 1,800 artifacts recovered from the earliest expedition in 1987. A French court previously issued that ruling. The federal court in Norfolk later maintained oversight of the case because of its specialty in admiralty law.
The famed Titanic sank on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1912. Of the 2,228 passengers and crew, 705 were saved.
The wreck site, about 400 miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland, was discovered in 1985. In 1992, after several expeditions, RMS Titanic asked the Norfolk federal court for sole salvage rights and permanent ownership of all the objects it recovered.
The case hit several bumps along the way, including a number of appeals. The company, under previous ownership, initially wished to sell the artifacts for profit. The court refused to allow that and ordered the company to undergo a study of what it would take to permanently preserve the objects.
That led to the creation of a thick book of covenants and conditions aimed at keeping the collection intact and preserved. The company maintains a climate-controlled warehouse for artifacts that are not on display.
The court has allowed the company to sell bits of coal that were pulled from the wreck site.
The company could sell the collection, but the buyer would have to obey the restrictions already agreed to between the court and the company. Previous attempts to sell the artifacts to a museum, including The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, failed.
The company has previously said it would fund a preservation trust to provide for the maintenance and conservation of the artifacts.
The last Titanic expedition, a year ago, did not yield artifacts. The trip was scientific and designed to assess, map and film the wreck site and to determine the approximate size of the debris field. Footage of the dive showed that the ship has deteriorated greatly since it was first discovered.
Tim McGlone, (757) 446-2343, firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, please consult with a Virginia attorney about legal issues raised in this article. Every situation is unique.
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