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Who Owns the Titanic?

Image Credit: Premier Exhibitions

30 years ago, a crew of American and French researchers led by oceanographer Robert Ballard reported some astonishing news: 73 years after hitting an iceberg, the R.M.S. Titanic had been found in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Almost immediately, questions regarding who had the right to dive to depths of over 12,000 feet and retrieve artifacts—or even the ship itself—were the subject of public, ethical, and legal debate. Could anyone actually own the remains of the most infamous ocean liner in history?

The ship’s original owner, White Star Line, had evaporated, bought out by rival Cunard; insurance companies covering both the ship and freight had an unknown number of underwriters. The paper trail was so pockmarked by the time of the 1985 discovery that it would’ve been difficult for any one of them to make any substantial claim. And even if they could, the challenge was making a case that would trump admiralty law, which specifies that a sunken vessel located in international waters belongs to no one.

“Any financial records and the actual certificates of insurance are now lost,” says Paul Louden-Brown, a maritime historian and a former vice-president of the Titanic Historical Society. “It would be expensive to pursue a legal claim...particularly through the U.S. court system and any positive financial outcome is questionable.”

Naturally, not everyone agreed with that assessment.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several entities challenged the newly formed RMS Titanic, Inc., which had been recognized in court as being the salvor-in-possession after a 1987 dive in tandem with the French research team that had helped Ballard. (It didn’t give them ownership of the ship itself, but they had exclusive American rights to any artifacts retrieved during a dive.) A company named Marex said the ship had been abandoned by RMS (previously known as Titanic Ventures) because they had waited too long to return; another company fought to charge “tourists” $32,500 to visit the wreck in a submersible; insurer Liverpool and London, who had paid out on some passenger policies, pursued RMS in court before settling.

It took years, but RMS successfully fought off their remaining challengers and recovered thousands of items during dives performed from 1987 to 2004. Bags that had been recovered were opened by Telly Savalas during a live television special. (They contained some coins, jewelry and Italian lire.) In 1998, RMS was able to successfully raise a portion of the ship’s hull that weighed 15 tons. For a time, it was part of a Titanic exhibition at the Luxor in Las Vegas.

RMS has brought up over 5,000 artifacts but must continually display efforts to visit the wreck in order to maintain salvage rights. According to Louden-Brown, their jurisdiction applies only to dives in the United States. “There is nothing to prevent a company based in the UK or any other country from diving and recovering material from the vessel,” he says. “If the items recovered were landed in a U.S. port, then they would be seized and possibly the diving vessel impounded. So any operations would have to begin and end in a country other than the U.S.”

So who owns the Titanic? Right now, no one. If someone figured out a way to raise 66,000 tons without destroying what remains of the ship, they’d likely be able to claim it—until the inevitable legal challenges came their way. Personal effects and other items are yours for the taking providing you dive for them without entering the U.S. and don’t mind some harsh criticism. The act of retrieving artifacts has been perceived by some as disturbing the water-logged memorial of the more than 1,500 lives lost.

When Ballard returned to the site in 1986, his expedition placed a plaque on the ship’s stern to honor the dead. Like most everything else, it was eventually removed.

Additional Sources:

Titanic in the Courts,” Archaeology, January/February 2001.    

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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