U.S. Tries to Halt Removal of Titanic Artifacts

In May 2024, there is a planned expedition to the Titanic. The company, RMS Titanic Inc. (RMST), owns the salvage rights to the shipwreck, but the U.S. government is trying to stop them from removing anything from the site.

During the unmanned voyage, RMST wants to take photos of the wreck, enter the hull of the ship, and potentially recover artifacts. It is this last part of the plan that is controversial. A federal law and international agreement state that the shipwreck is a grave site and a memorial to those who died in the disaster. The U.S. government argues that entering the hull of the ship breaks that law.

The Titanic under construction.

The vessel under construction. Photo: www.history.com


Finders keepers

RMST acquired salvage rights to the Titanic under the old finders-keepers maritime law when the original team that found the Titanic in 1985 did not file a recovery claim. Since then, RMST has removed thousands of items from the sunken vessel, while the U.S. government tried to cobble together an international agreement that would leave the famous vessel alone.

Currently, the company is particularly interested in the Marconi room of the ship. The room played a crucial role as the ship sank. It contains the wireless telegraph machine that sent the first Morse code messages to nearby ships when they hit the iceberg. That radio is one of the reasons that hundreds of people managed to survive.

The government is concerned that going into the hull could disturb the artifacts and any human remains within it.

“RMST is not free to disregard this validly enacted federal law, yet that is its stated intent,” argued U.S. lawyers. The shipwreck “will be deprived of the protections Congress granted it.”

The bow of the sunken Titanic

The bow of the Titanic, as seen in 2004. Photo: NOAA


The counterargument from RMST is that they will only recover artifacts from the debris field, or those that are freestanding inside the wreck. They will not actively cut into or detach anything from the ship. They have also said they would work in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, they do not plan to acquire a permit for the site. As they own the salvage rights, they do not think they should require one.

Long legal wrangle ahead

This is not the first time that the U.S. government has tried to stop RMST from retrieving items from the wreckage. In 2020, the company wanted to recover a radio from the Titanic. A submersible was going to enter the shipwreck through a window, and a mechanical arm was to cut electrical cords so that the object could be removed. They wanted to exhibit the radio alongside thousands of other artifacts that they had recovered.

a section of the sunken Titanic

Artifacts already recovered from the sunken ship include a top hat and bottles of perfume. Photo: NOAA


A judge granted RMST permission, but when the trip was postponed due to the pandemic, the U.S. government attempted to stop it from going ahead. It has been delayed indefinitely.

RMST claims that the government is infringing their rights and that the wreckage sits within international waters, beyond U.S. jurisdiction. Some believe that the case could take years and even end up in the Supreme Court.

“It goes to the question of who has authority over the wreck site,” John D. Kimball, a specialist in maritime law, told The New York Times. “The issues are tricky, and the rulings are likely to be appealed.”

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.