The Day Historic Preservation Principles Saved the TITANIC From a Second Maritime Disaster

Laura Gongaware | Note

The story of RMS TITANIC has fascinated the public ever since the fateful night of April 15, 1912, when she hit an iceberg and sank, causing the death of over 1500 passengers and crewmen. Since then, TITANIC has been the subject of numerous movies, television documentaries, print stories, academic conferences, and museum exhibits. Although the wreck’s general location, approximately 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland, Canada, was well known, it was not until 1985 that a joint American-French team discovered the wreck’s actual location. In 1987, Titanic Ventures Limited Partnership, predecessor-in-interest to RMS Titanic, Inc./Premier Exhibitions (RMST), and Institut français de recherché pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER) began salvage work on the site, during which time they raised approximately 1800 artifacts. RMST continued salvaging the wreck site in conjunction with IFREMER and then later with P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of Moscow, Russia. RMST raised several thousand artifacts during 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004, and has since conserved those artifacts at its facility in Atlanta, Georgia.

In order to establish its claim to the TITANIC artifacts, RMST has spent the last eighteen years in court. In 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that the law of salvage applies to RMST’s claims to the TITANIC artifacts, thereby determining that RMST was entitled to a salvage award, not title to the recovered artifacts. Over the next year, RMST attempted to circumvent the court’s ruling through an agreement with the insurer of the passenger cargo and several press releases announcing that RMST possessed title to the artifacts. Displeased by RMST’s actions, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered RMST to file a motion for a salvage award within sixty days or lose its right to a salvage award altogether. On November 30, 2007, RMST filed the appropriate motion and on April 15, 2008, was directed by the court to submit a list of proposed “covenants and conditions” to guide RMST in its management of the collection. RMST and the U.S. government–specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)–worked together in drafting those covenants and conditions in accordance with existing legislation and guidelines, including the RMS TITANIC Maritime Memorial Act of 1986; NOAA’s Guidelines for Research, Exploration, and Salvage of RMS TITANIC; the International Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS TITANIC; and proposed U.S. legislation to implement the International Agreement. The covenants and conditions were revised several times, and on August 12, 2010, the Eastern District of Virginia held that RMST was entitled to a salvage award of 100% of the fair market value of the TITANIC artifacts recovered in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004 because of the company’s skill and service in recovering those artifacts. The court reserved the right to determine whether that award was to be paid in specie, per RMST’s request, or from the proceeds of a judicial sale of the artifacts; a year later, the district court issued a ruling stating that the salvage award could only be satisfied by granting RMST title to the TITANIC artifacts on the condition that “such title is fully subject to the covenants and conditions that the United States . . . negotiated and finalized with RMST and the court.” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 2d 784, 808, 2010 AMC 1817, 1521 (E.D. Va. 2010), and 804 F. Supp. 2d 508, 2011 AMC 1817 (E.D. Va. 2011).