Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic
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Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, stands in front of the crew module from Alvin, the deep-sea submersible that Ballard's team used to survey the wreck site.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Titanic Artifacts Caught in International Tug-of-War

British museums face off against private investors to "bring the Titanic home."

Since a bitterly cold evening in April 1912, the RMS Titanic has rested on the bottom of the North Atlantic, a watery grave for more than 1,500 people. But since 1987, a private American company has salvaged remains of Titanic from the ocean floor, amassing more than 5,500 artifacts from the ill-fated liner—everything from a piece of the hull to sets of china.

In 2016, that company, RMS Titanic, Inc., and its owner Premier Exhibitions filed for bankruptcy, and the artifacts it recovered from the shipwreck face an uncertain fate. Now, a coalition of British museums is bidding to buy the company with the goal of bringing Titanic home.

In a court filing on Friday, the U.K.'s National Maritime Museum and National Museums Northern Ireland pledged to raise $19.2 million in the coming months to buy Premier Exhibitions and its Titanic collection.

The museums would co-own and conserve the Titanic's artifacts, and the Titanic Belfast museum built next to Titanic's shipyards would display many of them. Premier's non-Titanic assets would be spun off to exhibits firm Running Subway. Premier's creditors support the bid; Running Subway's CEO James Sanna is on the company's creditors committee.

“The essence of our proposal is that 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,” says Conal Harvey, the deputy chairman of Titanic Belfast. “We don't want the artifacts to be otherwise exploited by people in a way that we think is inappropriate.”

“If we fail in our attempt to save this collection for posterity, the very strong chance is that the collection will be broken up,” adds Kevin Fewster, the director of the National Maritime Museum. “If that disaster ever were to happen, it could not be rectified again—the collection would be lost for all time.”

The museums aren't the only bidders. On June 15, a group of Premier's existing shareholders, including Hong Kong investment firm PacBridge Capital Partners and the U.S. private equity firms Alta Fundamental Advisers and Apollo Global Management (whose assets include Chuck E. Cheese's and the University of Phoenix) offered a minimum of $17.5 million for the company. A third proposal from a committee representing Premier's equity holders calls for splitting up the artifacts and selling some off at auction.

“Because of this bankruptcy, human history might go on the auction block and disappear from the public domain,” says Fredrik Hiebert, the National Geographic Society's archaeologist-in-residence.

The court may decide among the proposals at a July 25 hearing.

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Oceanographer Robert Ballard, the National Geographic Explorer who discovered the Titanic in 1985, strongly prefers the museums' bid.

“I’m lending my voice to what the British government and Titanic Belfast are doing,” he says. “It's just doing the right thing.”

Salvaging the Past?

The announcement marks the latest twist in the story of RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST). The private firm holds salvage rights to Titanic, which means that it is the only entity allowed to remove artifacts from the wreck site.

RMST says that its goal is to preserve the ship's legacy, and the company has conserved the artifacts it salvaged. Museums around the world, including the National Maritime Museum, have displayed RMST's collections in exhibits seen by more than 25 million people. Premier currently runs four exhibits in the U.S. and Canada.

Museums and academics have criticized RMST for commercially salvaging artifacts in the first place. RMST also stoked outrage by trying to win the authority to auction off its artifacts.

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RMST's claims on Titanic rest on maritime law dating back centuries. Generally, salvage rights to a shipwreck in international waters go to the first people who bring an object from the wreck to the surface. But when Ballard's team discovered the ship's resting place, it didn't bring up any artifacts out of respect for the dead. “You don't go to the battlefield of Gettysburg with a shovel, and you don't pull belt buckles off the Arizona,” Ballard says.

Ballard's refusal gave Titanic Ventures, the earlier iteration of RMST, an opening. Less than a year after U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a law proclaiming the Titanic a maritime memorial, Titanic Ventures contracted IFREMER, the French agency that assisted the 1985 discovery mission, to salvage the wreck. Titanic Ventures later gained the underlying salvage rights, which then passed to RMST.

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From 1993 to 2004, RMST visited the wreck six more times to salvage and research it. In 2010, the company returned with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to photograph the ship, creating the most detailed maps of Titanic ever made. (The National Geographic Society helped fund the processing of data from the 2010 expedition. Maps of Titanic based on RMST's data published in the April 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Finishing the Journey

Meanwhile, RMST spent years in admiralty court defending its salvage rights. In 2011, a U.S. judge affirmed the company's claims to the 1993-2004 artifacts, under certain binding conditions.

Per that covenant, the 1993-2004 artifacts, known generally as the “American collection,” must be kept together forever, ideally alongside the “French collection” recovered in 1987. According to the legal agreement, whoever owns the artifacts must take care of them and make them available for research and public display.

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Robert Ballard (center) meets with Conal Harvey (left) and Kevin Fewster (right) during the launch of National Geographic's new exhibition, Titanic: The Untold Story.

The museums say they're more than ready to take on that conservation challenge: In 2017, the National Maritime Museum opened a new storage and conservation facility.

“Our expertise and the unique configuration of our new building will enable us to give access to these collections in ways that would be equal to anything that could be done anywhere in the world—if not more than,” says Fewster.

Ballard, for one, agrees.

“The Titanic was always meant to turn around and come back home but never did,” he says. “This helps gives closure.”

A message from the National Geographic Society: National Geographic is committed to honoring the lives lost on the Titanic. The National Geographic Museum's latest exhibition, Titanic: The Untold Story, contains rare artifacts on generous loan from families of the survivors. None were salvaged from Titanic's final resting site.