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Judge: Salvage firm has title to Titanic artifacts

Associated Press Modified: August 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm •  Published: August 15, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday granted a company title to fine china, ship fittings and other artifacts worth about $110 million that it recovered from the Titanic in a half-dozen perilous expeditions to the famous shipwreck.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith in Norfolk issued the order a little over a year after ruling that RMS Titanic was entitled to full compensation for the roughly 5,900 artifacts. In her August 2010 ruling, Smith postponed deciding whether to give RMS title to the artifacts or sell them and turn the proceeds over to the company.

Brian Wainger, an RMS attorney, did not immediately return voicemail messages.

Smith's ruling requires RMS to comply with "covenants and conditions" the company previously worked out with the federal government, including a prohibition against selling the collection. The conditions, which accompanied last year's ruling, also require RMS to make the artifacts available "to present and future generations for public display and exhibition, historical review, scientific and scholarly research, and educational purposes."

Premier Exhibitions Inc., the Atlanta-based parent company of RMS, has been displaying the Titanic artifacts in exhibitions around the world. The items include personal belongings of passengers, such as perfume from a maker who was traveling to New York to sell his samples.

According to the covenants, RMS is required to meet professional standards for preservation of the artifacts. RMS will be allowed to sell or otherwise dispose of individual items only if they are deemed of no cultural, historical or aesthetic value, or are in such poor physical condition that they cannot be restored.

The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,228 passengers and crew. An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1985 on the North Atlantic seabed, about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada.

Courts later declared RMS Titanic salvor-in-possession — meaning it had exclusive rights to salvage the shipwreck — but explicitly stated it did not own the artifacts or the wreck itself.

RMS recovered artifacts from the shipwreck in expeditions in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004.

In her ruling last year, Smith marveled at the derring-do of RMS employees who took submersible vessels 12,500 feet to the ocean floor, where water pressure of 6,300 pounds per square inch meant damage to the hull could "cause the instantaneous death of the entire crew."

In 2010, the company collaborated with some of the world's leading experts in the most technologically advanced expedition to the Titanic, undertaking the first comprehensive mapping survey of the vessel with 3-D imagery from bow to stern.


Larry O'Dell can be reached at


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