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Who owns the Titanic, and who can dive at the wreck?

TheJournal.ie has been looking into issues surrounding the Titanic disaster 100 years after the ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.

Newspaper headlines bear news of the Titanic's sinking outside the headquarters of the White Star Line company in April 1912.
Newspaper headlines bear news of the Titanic's sinking outside the headquarters of the White Star Line company in April 1912.
Image: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

LATE ON THE EVENING of 14 APRIL 1912, the luxury White Star liner RMS Titanic struck an iceberg, causing significant damage to the ship’s hull.

Within three hours, the ship sank into the freezing Atlantic waters. Over 1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster.

The wreckage lay undiscovered on the seabed until Dr Robert Ballard charted its location off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1985 and since then numerous dives have been carried out at the site to explore the wreckage and to recover materials which went down with the ship.

The ship was owned by White Star Lines at the time of the disaster, but who owns the Titanic now? And who has the right to dive the wreck and recover ‘lost’ property?

From White Star Line to Carnival Corp

When Titanic struck the iceberg in 1912 and subsequently sank, it was effectively insured by White Star Line, though the company had taken a higher-than-normal insurance excess on the basis that the ship was built to a higher standard and was sailing on a relatively safe ocean on which the greatest danger was colliding with another ship, rather than an iceberg. White Star had mortgaged all of its ships to cover the cost of building new ships the Olympic and Titanic.

The year after the Titanic’s loss saw a record year of profits for White Star, according to Louden-Brown, primarily due to the level of emigration across the Atlantic. With the outbreak of WWI, though, shipping across this sea came to a virtual standstill and the 1920s saw the US clamp down on inward migration – and the onslaught of the Depression.

In 1934, White Star Line merged with rival company Cunard Line, but was the junior partner in that merger – Cunard held 60 per cent of the shares in Cunard White Star Ltd. From this point on, no ship ever bore the White Star name. In 1948, Cunard managed to get together the finances to purchase the remaining shares held by White Star. Cunard is now owned by the major cruise and shipping organisation Carnival Corporation (which owns P&O and the cruise line Costa – of Costa Concordia infamy).

A crowd gathers outside White Star Line’s offices in New York on 16 April 1912 to await news of the Titanic. (AP Photo/PA File)

So who owns the Titanic now?

According to historian and White Star Line expert Paul Louden-Brown, Titanic’s ownership is complicated – and depends on where you’re from.

“Under Admiralty Law which the US, Britain and other major maritime nations adhere to, a vessel lying in international waters is effectively without ownership and noone can actually stake a claim on it,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“However, in the case of Titanic, the company that dived on her and has recovered artefacts, RMS Titanic Inc, has made a legal claim as salvor-in-possession. [The resulting restrictions] only apply to US law and US citizens,” he added. “So, for example, if I was to sail out of the port of South Hampton with a dive recovery vessel, I could dive and retrieve any artefacts  I care for from the vessel and noone could do anything about it.”

“But if I landed those objects in the US then I could be arrested and those items seized. But if I brought them anywhere else, [there would be] no problem.”

The insurance company which had covered Titanic and which paid out compensation after the vessel sank challenged RMS Titanic Ltd, claiming that it owned property from the wreck because it had paid out over them. The Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association reached an undisclosed settlement with the company in 2007.

Premier Exhibitions subsequently announced it had acquired the ownership rights to the personal property on board the sunken ship.

Who can dive the wreck?

“Diving on the Titanic is still like putting a man into space – if you get into trouble that deep down, no one on the planet can help,” says Louden-Brown.

But if you have the necessary financing to cover what could be a €200,000-a-day dive to the wreck as well as the required equipment, then there’s nothing to stop you taking an underwater tour of the wreck.

Louden-Brown said RMS Titanic had sought to prevent James Cameron from filming the wreck for his hit film Titanic, for which Louden-Brown was a consultant. However, the company could not legally prevent the US film company from filming. ”If we had recovered anything, that would have been another matter because it’s a US [film] company.

A pocket watch belonging to third class passenger William Henry Allen found in the Titanic wreckage; the watch is among the Titanic Collection being auctioned by Guernsey’s Auctioneers. (Bebeto Matthews/AP/PA File)

What’s left down there?

The owner of RMS Titanic, Premier Exhibitions Inc, is currently auctioning over 5,500 items recovered from the wreck, including clothing, jewellery, and a bronze cherub from the ship’s grand staircase.

New York-based Guernsey’s Auctioneers is handling the sale. The entire collection is being sold off in one lot and has been appraised at $189 million.

Guernsey’s notes that the “sale is subject to certain covenants and conditions to ensure the Collection will be properly maintained and available for public display” which in turn mean that the sale is not being conduction in typical auction style.

The entire collection is being sold off in one lot and has been appraised at $189 million.

“It has largely been picked clean,” claims Louden-Brown. “The crow’s nest bell, which is probably the most iconic thing, they’ve taken that, the jewellery, various instruments, a section of hull, china, glass and plate.”

Who gets to keep goods salvaged from ships – and at what risk? >

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