A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For the past three years, the Titanic has been slowly sinking all over again, this time in a rising sea of court cases. In 1996 a Virginia district court granted the salvage firm R.M.S. Titanic (RMST) exclusive rights not only to excavate the site, but also to visit and photograph it in an effort to reward the firm's restraint in selling artifacts. The decision was challenged, and in late March the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld RMST's exclusive salvage rights, but reversed exclusive rights for photography and visitation. In June RMST filed a petition to the Supreme Court to appeal the reversal.
The first appeal had been brought by would-be aquatic tourist Christopher S. Haver of Arizona, who found his visit to the Titanic (pricetag $32,000) with the British Virgin Island-based corporation Deep Ocean Expeditions threatened by the district court decision.
Appeals court judge Paul Niemeyer, in his decision to deny RMST exclusive photography or visitation, wrote, "To award, in the name of salvage service, the exclusive right to photograph a shipwreck would, we believe, also tend to convert what was designed as a salvage operation on behalf of the owners into an operation serving the salvors.... Salvors would be less inclined to save property because they might be able to obtain more compensation by leaving the property in place and selling photographic images or charging the public admission to view it."
Making it clear that his decision was not motivated by a concern for historical preservation, Niemeyer observed that moving the Titanic from international waters would allow RMST exclusive photographic rights.
RMST's Supreme Court petition warns that in the wake of the appeals court decision, "potentially disastrous, international incidents of violence on the high seas will most certainly occur" as "rival salvors compete for access to the wreck." In the wake of the appeals court decision, the petition goes on to warn, "denying the district court's efforts to preserve the economic incentive presently available to the salvor of an historic wreck...could force a salvor to compromise the integrity of the collection of artifacts salvaged from the wreck by selling individual artifacts."