Stealing the Titanic: Artifacts auction draws accusations of grave robbery


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On April 15, on the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s sinking, an auction house in New York will sell off $185-million-worth of items salvaged from the wreck: Eye-glasses, antique currency, jewellery, clothing and — the pièce de resistance — a 17-tonne section of the hull ripped clean in the ship’s final violent moments. 

Bow of the Titanic photographed June 2004 by the ROV Hercules during an expedition returning to the shipwreck [Credit: NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island]

In Halifax, the burial place of 150 Titanic victims, news of the auction prompted disgust. “We’re into preserving and documenting — not into pillaging,” Lynn-Marie Richard, registrar for the city’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, told The Chronicle Herald. 

The man who located the Titanic sitting upright at the bottom of the Atlantic would agree. 

In 1985, only hours after he had spotted the wreck, Robert Ballard took a call from a curious ABC reporter, who asked if the legendary ship could ever be raised from the depths. 

“Absolutely not,” he replied. 

“In fact I would like to go and try to ensure that this memorial to 1,500 souls is left the way it is.” 

Only months later, a fully equipped salvage crew set sail for Mr. Ballard’s coordinates. 

Titanic survivors called them “thieves” and “pirates,” and Mr. Ballard condemned the salvagers for “perpetuating” the tragedy. 

Decades later, has the taboo of “graverobbing” worn off? 

Almost from the minute it sank, the Royal Mail Ship Titanic was a target for souvenir hunters. Scavengers stole nameplates and oars from the ship’s lifeboats as soon as they were dropped off in New York. 

In 2008, a bloody life jacket believed to have been pulled from the body of a floating victim sold for $53,000. 

Edmund Stone, a Titanic steward whose body was discovered by the Canadian cable ship Mackay-Bennett, has yielded more than $250,000 of souvenirs, including a set of keys and a silver pocket watch stopped at 2:16 a.m., the moment the 33-year-old was tipped into the icy waters of the north Atlantic. 

A January 2012 handout photo of a Titanic porthole [Credit: RMS Titanic, Inc.]

Under a 1994 ruling by the Eastern District of Virginia, salvage rights over the wreck belong exclusively to RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions. In seven expeditions to the site, the private company has pulled up 6,000 artifacts. 

Eva Hart was seven years old and bound for a new life in Winnipeg when her father died in the disaster. 

“To bring up those things from a mass sea grave just to make a few thousand pounds shows a dreadful insensitivity and greed,” she said in 1987, just as the first salvage expedition was setting sail. 

Amid charges RMS Titanic Inc. is causing damage to the wreck site, the International Congress of Maritime Museums has barred its members from exhibiting any Titanic artifact salvaged after 1990. 

“While it may be OK following strict archaeological practices to recover loose objects like ships fitting … you wouldn’t go into a graveyard and start digging people up to recover the personal effects,” said Jacques Marc, explorations director with the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. 

At least one official body, the U.S. Coast Guard’s International Ice Patrol, still recognizes the grave-like nature of the wreck site. On April 15 every year, the patrol sends a plane over the last reported position of the vessel to throw a wreath into the water. 

Resting nearly four kilometres below the surface of the Atlantic, the Titanic is one of the few prominent shipwrecks to have evaded salvage for so long. 

The Lusitania, a passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915, was used by the British navy for depth-charge practice. 

A handout photo of a bowler hat from the Titanic [Credit: RMS Titanic, Inc.]

The RMS Empress of Ireland, often dubbed “Canada’s Titanic,” was a passenger liner that foundered in the St. Lawrence River in 1914 after colliding with a Norwegian freighter, killing 1,012 people. 

Within months of its sinking, divers were sent down by the ship’s owner to recover the safe. By the 1960s, private salvagers were blasting holes in the hull to gain access the teak-decked interior. 

“I’m not going out to take pictures, I go out to bring up artifacts,” says diver Bart Malone over the phone from New Jersey. 

The 65-year-old has discovered wrecks off the U.S. coast, dived the Empress of Ireland and made nearly 200 dives to the Andrea Doria, an Italian passenger liner that sunk in 1956. His personal collection includes rooms full of plates and crystal, as well as baggie after baggie of shoe soles. 

Mr. Malone’s circle of divers gets the “grave robber” accusation a lot and he bristles at the comparison. 

“I’m not robbing any graves, it just happens to be that people died there,” he said, adding what he does is no different than combing a U.S. Civil War battlefield with a metal detector. 

“You have people saying just leave it there — but then nobody gets to see it except the divers,” he said. 

“The ocean is not going to preserve them.” 

Chris Klausen of Victoria boasts one of Canada’s most extensive private collections of Empress of Ireland artifacts: Crockery, light fixtures, a masthead light and the port-side running light that helped cause the collision. But he draws the line at personal effects. 

“Somebody bringing up a chair that I sat in is much different than somebody bringing up my wedding ring — I don’t think you need that to tell the story,” he said, 

A January 2012 handout photo of the Titanic telegraph top and base [Credit: RMS Titanic, Inc.]

The native New Yorker has a connection to the 21st-century’s own Titanic-sized disaster: the 9/11 attacks. One friend survived by showing up late to his 95th-floor office in the World Trade Centre because of a breakfast meeting; another friend did not, by getting aboard one of the doomed flights. 

“There’s no logic to why I don’t like personal items,” he said. “I follow my gut, and it just doesn’t feel right.” 

But personal items are what draw the crowds. 

RMS Titanic Inc. knows full well the appeal of the RMS Titanic is its 1912 sinking, rather than any sudden fascination in Edwardian-era steamship travel. 

Its touring exhibitions show off display cases stocked with leather suitcases, combs, clothing and letters, along with information about their previous owners. Visitors are given a card with information about a real passenger on the ship. At exhibit’s end they find out if they survived. 

Some of the items will be on sale in New York. 

“Humans are fascinated by tragedy,” said Mr. Marc. 

“I would think that a lot of people who didn’t support the salvage of the Titanic probably went to the exhibit.” Even the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic displays a donated pair of children’s shoes found on the body of a two-year-old victim. 

An impromptu museum in Mr. Klausen’s North Saanich home holds his extensive collection. 

“It’s so much more than a shipwreck, it was an integral part of settling Canada,” he said, adding more than 500,000 Canadians are related to European immigrants carried by the liner. That is why he is looking to showcase his collection in a cross-Canada tour. 

But still, behind every artifact is the reminder of several hundred people entombed at the bottom of the St. Lawrence. 

Unlike the Titanic, where human remains were long ago devoured by marine life, the Empress of Ireland remains strewn with the bones of passengers and crew unable to escape in the 15 minutes the vessel took to plunge to the bottom. 

“Sometimes I’ll get hit with the sadness of it … and I’ll think about giving up the whole thing,” said Mr. Klausen. 

Author: Tristin Hopper | Source: National Post [January 28, 2012]



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