Court: Titanic Wreckage Doesn't Belong to Salvage Company

The company that has exclusive salvage rights to the wreckage of the Titanic does not own the site or the artifacts recovered from it, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by the U.S. District Court in Norfolk.

Atlanta-based RMS Titanic Inc. had sought full ownership over the nearly 6,000 artifacts it has recovered from the 1912 shipwreck. The company says the artifacts are worth more than $71 million.

In 1994, the federal court granted the company sole salvage rights, allowing them to recover artifacts from the luxury liner provided they would be used in the public interest. The court also barred the company from selling the artifacts, including passengers' clothing and part of the ship's hull.

In Tuesday's ruling, the appeals court denied the company's request to own the artifacts rather than act as a caretaker for the collection. The company had asked the court to apply the rule of "finders-keepers" to what it recovered from the wreckage.

"A free finders-keepers policy is but a short step from active piracy and pillaging," wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer.

The panel did, however, vacate the Norfolk court's ruling that denied RMS Titanic salvage-in-possession rights over about 1,800 artifacts recovered in 1987 from the Titanic.

The appeals court ruled the lower court did not have jurisdiction in the case. The company had been given full ownership rights to the artifacts by the French government.

The luxury liner sank on its maiden voyage on April 14, 1912, nearly 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada, killing more than 1,500. The wreckage was located in 1985.

More than 16.5 million people worldwide have visited traveling exhibits of the collection. Proceeds are reinvested in the company's salvage efforts, said Arnie Geller, president and chief executive of RMS Titanic Inc.

Geller said the decision to keep the 1987 artifacts under the original French agreement is the "greatest assurance of keeping the exhibition together."