A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Titanic in the Courts
Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001
1912 On April 15, the White Star ocean liner RMS Titanic sinks on her maiden voyage after striking an iceberg in international waters 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perish. Claimants in the United Kingdom and United States seek compensation for personal injury, loss of life, and loss of property.
1916 Titanic's owner, Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, pays a total of $664,000 to settle all legal claims.
1985 Titanic is discovered on September 1 by a joint expedition of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Institute of France for the Research and Exploration of the Sea (IFREMER). American co-leader Robert Ballard makes several dives to the wreck site in the submersible Alvin. The team decides not to salvage artifacts from it.
1986 In July, during a second season of exploring the site, Ballard places a plaque on Titanic, urging that the site be left undisturbed as a memorial. Congress passes the RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act, which directs the United States to enter into negotiations with other interested nations to establish guidelines to protect the "scientific, cultural, and historical significance of RMS Titanic." The act also expresses the sense of Congress that, pending such an agreement, "no person should physically alter, disturb, or salvage the RMS Titanic." The Department of State contacts the United Kingdom, France, and Canada but finds little interest in an agreement.
1987 IFREMER contracts with Titanic Ventures, a limited partnership, to salvage artifacts from the site. Titanic Ventures makes 32 dives to the site and recovers some 1,800 artifacts. The operation draws protests; Titanic survivor Eva Hart decries the "insensitivity and greed" and labels the salvors "fortune hunters, vultures, pirates." Titanic Ventures sells its salvage interests and artifacts to RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST). In October, Telly Savalas hosts a live television program featuring the opening of a suitcase recovered from Titanic's debris field. Instead of riches, the valise holds a small amount of coins, jewelry, and banknotes, including Italian lire.
1992 Rival salvage company Marex Titanic Inc., which says it found the ship, sues in the Eastern District of Virginia for salvage rights and ownership of the 1,800 artifacts recovered by Titanic Ventures. The court, asserting jurisdiction over a non-U.S. ship in international waters in the interest of furthering international order, rejects Marex's claim in favor of Titanic Ventures. The decision is reversed on appeal because of a procedural technicality. Marex, which never recovered artifacts from the site and thus establish "possession," fades from the scene.
1993 In July, RMST recovers 800 artifacts. It files an action to seek exclusive salvage rights; on August 27, the Norfolk court issues a temporary warrant appointing RMST custodian of the wreck, site, and artifacts, pending possible claims from other parties. RMST settles with the Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association, one of Titanic's original insurers.
1994 On June 7, the court names RMST salvor-in-possession of the Titanic and sole owner of any items recovered from the site. RMST's status as exclusive salvor is valid so long as it remains "in possession," a condition that effectively compels it to mount salvage expeditions every year or two. In July, more than 1,000 objects are recovered from the wreck site. In October, an exhibit of Titanic artifacts recovered by RMST opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
1995 After learning about RMST's salvage efforts, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Canada initiate discussions on a Titanic agreement. 1996 In February, John A. Josyln, an independent salvor, files a motion challenging RMST's standing as exclusive salvor of Titanic and declares his intention to visit and photograph the site. The court issues a preliminary injunction preventing him from searching, surveying, salvaging, or photographing the site. In August, the court enjoins third parties from entering the site to photograph it. The 1996 RMST expedition, in cooperation with The Discovery Channel and accompanied by a tourist cruise chartered to observe the recovery, nets 74 objects, but a highly publicized effort to raise a 20-ton piece of the hull fails. The company that arranged for the cruise--and provided funding and equipment for the expedition--later sues RMST, claiming co-salvor status and seeking $8 million for breach of contract, fraud, and other damages.
1997 Titanic exhibitions open in Memphis, St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Norfolk, and Hamburg, Germany. In April, The Discovery Channel airs Titanic: Anatomy of A Disaster. Negotiations on a Titanic agreement take place between 1997 and 2000 by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and France. In December, Paramount Pictures releases the film Titanic, including footage made during 12 dives to the site by director James Cameron.
1998 Deep Ocean Expeditions advertises "Operation Titanic." For $32,500, individuals are promised they will be able to visit and photograph the site in Russian deep-sea submersibles. RMST requests a preliminary injunction, and, in an order dated June 23, the court declares that RMST, as salvor-in-possession, has the right to exclude others from visiting the site in order to photograph it. In August, RMST completes another salvage expedition, again in conjunction with The Discovery Channel, and recovers 70 artifacts, including the piece of the hull it attempted to raise in 1996. Despite the court injunction, Operation Titanic visits the wreck site in September. Exhibitions are held in Boston and Japan.
1999 On March 24, the Fourth Circuit court reverses the earlier ruling, stating that RMST cannot exclude others from visiting, viewing, or photographing the Titanic site. RMST appeals to the Supreme Court; in October, the high court declines to review the case, leaving RMST without exclusive photographic rights. Exhibitions are held in St. Paul and Atlantic City. In November, shareholders vote to remove RMST president George Tulloch and the company's attorney, Allan Carlin. The new president, Arnie Geller, promises to accelerate the pace of artifact recovery. Tulloch and Carlin sue RMST seeking to reverse their removal.
2000 In January, RMST settles with Tulloch and Carlin, paying the former executives $2.5 million in return for their promise not to meddle in company management for 18 months. Also in January, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and France develop a draft agreement concerning Titanic. The agreement sets forth rules for the management of the site, establishing in situ preservation as the preferred policy for the site. In April, RMST sues to prevent the U.S. from seeking an international agreement, arguing that such efforts are unconstitutional. In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requests public comments on proposed site-management guidelines.
RMST announces plans for the summer's expedition; for the first time, the company intends to enter the ship to search for "high profile targets," including a $300-million diamond shipment. Also for the first time since salvage began in 1987, RMST hires a "project archaeologist." But the primary goals of the salvage--to maintain the project's salvor-in-possession status and recover "desirable objects" for display--remain decidedly non-archaeological.
On July 28, U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke issues an order forbidding RMST from penetrating or cutting into Titanic or from selling artifacts. The salvage expedition, conducted in August under the direction of CEO G. Michael Harris, is plagued by bad weather and equipment failures. Harris is fired at its conclusion. Following RMST's salvage operations, Zegrahm Expeditions, a Seattle-based company, takes a small group of adventure tourists to the Titanic site.
On September 15, Judge Clarke dismisses RMST's case against NOAA and the Department of State, which had been negotiating an international agreement on the Titanic. The judge notes that RMST's claims were premature, but that RMST could renew its motion if and when an agreement was signed and implemented.
Ricardo Elia is a professor of archaeology at Boston University and vice president for professional responsibilities of the Archaeological Institute of America.Share