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R.M.S. Titanic: Underwater Cultural Heritage's Sacrifice

Journal of Business Law, June 2012

41 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2012  

Elizabeth Varner

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Date Written: 2012


In 1912 the RMS Titanic (Titanic) sank; in 1985 Dr. Robert Ballard and the Institute of France for Research and Exploration of the Sea discovered the Titanic, and in 1994 the legal battles began. The stories of the Titanic sinking are just the tip of the iceberg — this article presents the rest of the story.

This article studies the legal efforts to preserve the Titanic, evaluates the issues surrounding shipwrecks in international water, and analyzes what can be learned from this effort to help preserve other shipwrecks. There have been legislation, treaties and guidelines enacted to protect the Titanic. International treaties and US statutes and guidelines recognise the historical importance of the Titanic and seek to preserve the Titanic and her artifacts, to keep the artifacts together as a collection, to exhibit the collection to the public and to disseminate the information to the public.

Much litigation has consumed the issue of which court has jurisdiction to adjudicate rights to the Titanic and who has those rights, however, as the Titanic is in international waters. One complicating factor is the different attitudes and law of states involved towards underwater cultural heritage.

In the United States, the Fourth Circuit had declared that it has in rem jurisdiction over the Titanic in the United States and that R.M.S. Titanic, Inc (RMST), had salvor-in-possessor status in the United States. After RMST’s status was fully litigated, the district court in the Eastern District of Virginia crafted a salvage award for RMST. The court determined that RMST was entitled to 100 per cent of the fair market value of the salvaged objects and gave title of the artifacts to RMST. Since then, RMST has announced its intentions to sell the salvaged Titanic artifacts — leaving the Titanic and her artifacts in peril once again.

If the most famous shipwreck in the world has encountered these obstacles to preservation, then what hope do the lesser known shipwrecks have?

Keywords: Titanic, Salvage, Finders, Underwater, Cultural Heritage, Cultural Property, Ship, Maritime, Law, Treasure, Archeology, Shipwreck, Salvor, Preserve, International

Suggested Citation

Varner, Elizabeth, R.M.S. Titanic: Underwater Cultural Heritage's Sacrifice (2012). Journal of Business Law, June 2012. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Varner (Contact Author)

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law ( email )

United States

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