R.M.S Titanic - Salvage
The primary purpose of the maritime law of salvage is to prevent looting of recent marine casualties. After the R.M.S. Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, there was some immediate salvage of objects that floated on the surface (flotsam) and some that was jettisoned and recovered on shore (jetsam). However, because most of the wreck sank in water over 12,000 feet deep, the technology of the times made salvage of the ship itself impossible. It was not until 1985, when Titanic was discovered approximately 350 nautical miles (nm) off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, that modern technologies made possible actual salvage of artifacts from the wreck site.
1993 Award of the Collection of Artifacts Salvaged in 1987 by France
On June 24, 1987, Titanic Ventures Limited Partnership (TVLP) entered a charter agreement with L'Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER offsite link). This French Institute and the U.S. Navy were the sponsors of the joint expedition that discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985. The 1987 expedition salvaged approximately 1,800 artifacts. The artifacts were brought back to France for conservation and curation. TVLP obtained a Proces-Verbal or salvage award from a French Administrative Tribunal for the artifacts from the 1987 expedition with IFREMIR on October, 20 1993.
The Salvage Case in the United States Federal Court in the Eastern District of Virginia
In 1992, a competing salvor, Marex Inc., sought sole ownership and salvage rights to Titanic in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. TVLP intervened to assert its rights to salvage Titanic should be exclusive. Among other things, Marex argued a lack of “due diligence” by TVLP in their salvage of Titanic. The court ultimately determined that TVLP was the first and exclusive salvor of the Titanic and entered a permanent injunction prohibiting Marex from taking any action towards salvaging any items from the Titanic. However, the case was reversed on appeal to the 4th Circuit, on procedural grounds. Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 805 F. Supp. 375, 377 (E.D. Va. 1992), reversed on procedural grounds, Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 2 F.3d 544 (4th Cir. 1993).
Following procedural reversal by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Marex, the successor in interest to TLVP, RMS Titanic Inc. (RMST), filed a new case in the Eastern District of Virginia, seeking exclusive salvage rights, including sole and exclusive ownership of any items salvaged from the Titanic wreck. See R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 924 F. Supp. 714, 716 (E.D. Va. 1996) (summarizing procedural history). RMST entered into a settlement agreement with the one competing salvor that emerged, Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association. Id. at 715-16. RMST’s business plan for monetizing the collection of salvaged artifacts was through receipts from exhibition and proceeds arising from intellectual property rights. Similar to TLVP’s representations to the French Administrative Tribunal, RMST assured the court of its intention to keep the collection together and not to sell individual artifacts. Based in part on these assurances, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia awarded RMST salvor-in-possession status and exclusive rights over any items salvaged from Titanic to RMST on June 4, 1994.
RMST Inc. was subject to a corporate takeover in 2000. As part of the takeover, RMST considered changing its business plan, by (1) disposing of some of the Titanic articles previously recovered and (2) entering the Titanic wreck for additional salvage, by creating holes or slits or other openings in the wreck. Upon being notified of RMST’s plans, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued an order sua sponte,reaffirming RMST’s preservation obligations and prohibiting RMST from selling or otherwise disposing of the “any artifacts or any object recovered from the Titanic wreck site. R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, Case no. 2:93cv902 (July 28, 2000 E.D. Va.). The court also expressly prohibited RMST from cutting into the wreck or detaching any part of the wreck. Id.
Following the July 2000 court order, RMST notified the court that it planned to sell all of the artifacts to the newly formed The Titanic Foundation, Inc. RMST argued that it owned the Titanic wreck site and associated artifacts, under the law of finds. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia rejected RMST’s arguments, holding that RMST was prohibited from selling the artifacts to The Titanic Foundation, and the court’s previous orders “were proper and necessary when entered.” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, Case no. 2:93cv902 (Sept. 26, 2001 E.D. Va.). On appeal, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling. The 4th Circuit explained that the law of finds was unavailable to RMST; RMST’s remedy was a salvage award, which the district court could condition on compliance with certain terms R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 286 F.3d 194, 203 (4th Cir. 2002). RMST appealed the 4th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court denied RMST’s petition for certiorari. RMST subsequently sought a salvage award in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. See R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 327 F. Supp. 2d 664 (E.D. Va. 2004); R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 323 F. Supp. 2d 724, 743 (E.D. Va. 2004), aff'd in part, vacated in part, remanded sub nom. R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 435 F.3d 521 (4th Cir. 2006).
2011 Salvage Award Subject to the Continuing Jurisdiction of ED Va., Covenants & Conditions
On August 15, 2011, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia signed an Order granting RMST title to the Titanic artifacts recovered in the 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004 salvage expeditions, subject to certain specified conditions. The Covenants and Conditions were initially proposed by RMST, negotiated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Department of State through the United States Department of Justice, and then finalized by the Court. The Covenants and Conditions ensure that the collection of artifacts recovered from Titanic will be conserved and curated consistent with current international and U.S. historic preservation standards. Under the Order, NOAA represents the public interest in Titanic and has authority to enforce the Covenants and Conditions through the United States Department of Justice in court proceedings.
Additional reference information:
- August 15, 2011 Court Order Award of Titanic Collection
- Covenants and Conditions to Award of Titanic Collection
- RMST Press release on August 15, 2011 Order offsite link
- International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM) Report: "The Wrecksite of Titanic"
- Documents and References
Last Updated August 8, 2018