Since 1987, over 5,500 artifacts have been salvaged from the wreckage of the Titanic. Those artifacts range from a large piece of the hull to delicate sets of china. But who owns all of these things? Now that the company that has been doing the salvaging has filed for bankruptcy, ownership of the Titanic artifacts will be decided in court.
Deciding who owns a shipwreck and its contents can be complicated.
According to BBC, the original owner of a ship (be that a company or country) can claim ownership rights of the wreck. But if a ship owned by Spain sank in British waters, for example, Britain may be able to claim ownership rights.
In the case of the Titanic, the company that owned the ship had long ceased to exist by the time the wreck was found (73 years after it sank), and the wreck was located in international waters. According to National Geographic, under these circumstances, the first the first people to bring an object from the wreck to the surface have exclusive salvage rights to the wreck.
So who first salvaged a Titanic object?
Oceanographer Robert Ballard is the man who found the Titanic wreck in 1985. He and his crew did not bring any objects to the surface, out of respect for the dead. But a company that called itself Titanic Ventures had no qualms about swooping in and grabbing up artifacts — and that's exactly what they did in 1987. Titanic Ventures later became RMS Titanic Inc.
RMS Titanic Inc. and its owner, Premier Exhibitions, filed for bankruptcy in 2016, resulting in a battle over the 5,500 Titanic artifacts that have been salvaged over the last two decades.
Who are the competitors for Titanic ownership?
In one corner is the U.K.'s National Maritime Museum and National Museums Northern Ireland, which have jointly filed a court petition in which they promise to raise $19.2 million to buy Premier Exhibitions. Their goal is to keep the entire collection together and ensure it stays preserved for future generations.
In another corner is a group of Premier Exhibitions shareholders, which includes PacBridge Capital Partners (a Hong Kong investment firm) and Apollo Global Management (who owns Chuck E. Cheese, of all things). This group has offered $17.1 million to buy Premier Exhibitions.
In the final corner is a committee representing Premier Exhibition's equity holders. They are not offering to buy the company but rather want the artifacts to be auctioned off individually.
The proposals are going to be considered in a U.S. bankruptcy court on July 25.
Robert Ballard strongly supports the bid from the British museums.
This bid is also supported by Premier Exhibition's creditors (the people to which Premier owes money, hence the reason they are bankrupt).
If the British museums win the battle, they would co-own the artifacts and put them on display in the Titanic Belfast Museum. Conal Harvey, deputy chairman of Titanic Belfast, told NatGeo, "We want to secure [the artifacts] in public ownership in perpetuity, we want to make them available to the people of the world, and we want to honor the memories of the people who lost their lives in that unfortunate tragedy."