From Deep in Atlantic, Titanic Relics Sail Toward Auction

  • Bankrupt Premier Exhibitions selling items to pay creditors
  • Artifacts from doomed luxury liner include jewelry, china

The Titanic, circa 1912

Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Titanic may be under 2.5 miles of water, but wreckage from the doomed ship could fetch close to $220 million at an auction this year.

Premier Exhibitions Inc. proposed the sale in a May 18 filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Jacksonville, Florida. The Atlanta-based company and its RMS Titanic Inc. unit filed for Chapter 11 protection in June, amid a fight over artifacts it recovered from the vessel with the help of the French government. 

More than 1,500 people died after the Titanic, the biggest passenger liner of its day, hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in April 1912. The wreck wasn’t located until 1985.

In a 2008 article in National Geographic News, oceanographer Robert Ballard described how he found the ship while helping the U.S. Navy investigate sunken submarines. Starting in 1987, Premier Exhibitions worked with the French government on dozens of dives to recover artifacts including jewelry, clothing and dinnerware from the ship’s watery grave.

Premier resumed the hunt in 1993 without French involvement, and was subsequently named the “salvor-in-posession” of the site, according to a regulatory filing. The company and the French government continued to squabble over rights to the items until a bankruptcy judge last year rejected France’s efforts to establish its interest.

Last year, Premier exhibited a selection of artifacts in Las Vegas, among them a pair of blue and white striped men’s pajamas, a traveling receipt for “one canary in a cage” and a pair of never-worn white gloves.

The combined collection of 5,500 artifacts has an estimated market value of $218 million, according to a 2014 appraisal included in the docket.

Intense Interest

Artifacts from the Titanic have been the subject of intense interest in the past. A fur coat worn by a first-class stewardess fleeing the shipwreck went for the equivalent of $235,000 this year in the U.K., and items as small as a cracker from the lifeboat survival kit have sold for the equivalent of $23,000, according to the auction house Henry Aldridge & Son.

Premier said in court papers that, with creditor approval, it will market the Titanic relics and seek to line up an opening bidder for the auction, tentatively set for November. Whether items will be sold separately has yet to be determined. The bankruptcy court must approve any sale.

Pending federal legislation may boost the price of the artifacts Premier is looking to sell. A proposed rider in the 2017 Congressional Appropriations Act would ban any exploration of the Titanic not approved by the Secretary of Commerce, which could mean no new salvage dives for the next several years. Meanwhile, bacteria discovered on the wreck may be accelerating its disintegration, according to a 2011 Unesco report on the research. In the end, Premier’s artifacts could be the last to go on sale.

Creditors are owed more than $10 million, according to court filings. The sale could raise enough cash to repay them and offer shareholders a recovery as well, making the fate of RMS Titanic Inc. much happier than that of its namesake vessel.

The case is RMS Titanic Inc., 16-02230, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Middle District of Florida (Jacksonville).

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