The Queen versus the Relic Hunter

The ship, the queen, and the relic hunter: what are the current statuses of items “lost” at sea? If a relic hunter claims an item from the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic, how would the relic hunter’s claim stand in the light of the Titanic Agreement entered into by the United States, Great Britain, and Canada? Would Great Britain, the flagship of the Titanic have a substantial claim or would the salvor’s claim prevail in the end?

The Wreck of the Titanic as it currently lies in its underwater grave
The Wreck of the Titanic as it currently lies in its underwater grave

In the bitterly cold and hauntingly dark sea lays an unsinkable wreck. Seemingly interwoven with the ocean floor, 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland lay the RMS Titanic. At times the very real nature of this wreck is oft overshadowed by the megawatt smile of Hollywood leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. Veiled in an “Atlantis” like fantasy, “the ship of dreams” which now lies at about a depth of about two and a half miles served as a playground for the affluent on its maiden voyage.

This article explores a hypothetical scenario. Mr. Hunter is a treasure hunter and experienced scuba diver with his sights on retrieving valuables from the Titanic wreckage. Hunter is a British citizen who is totally self-funded. Hunter retrieves a pair of well-preserved binoculars that were issued to the crew and a ruby and a seaweed encrusted sapphire broach around 700 feet from the wreck.

Hunter contacts a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History, in New York City to purchase the pieces that he has collected. The curator contacts the United States government aware of the Titanic Agreement in an attempt to clarify if they can legally purchase these items. The United States government contacts Hunter and directs him to relinquish the property under Article 3 of the Titanic Agreement. Hunter refuses and applies for a declaratory judgment in the Great Britain court.

This article will first analyze the background of the Titanic wreck and the history behind the notorious ship’s maiden and final voyage. It will analyze the legislative history behind the ship and the litigation that has resulted from it. Next this article will pose a hypothetical scenario to better evaluate the rights of an individual who may have reduced artifacts from the wreck into their possession. The article will next analyze Hunter’s rights; define the status of the cultural property, and the classification of ancient wrecks.  Lastly, this article will evaluate the Hunter’s rights under finder’s rights, salvage rights, the rights of the original owner and the government’s rights. This article will end with a conclusion as to who would be entitled to the disputed property.

After a thorough analysis an underwater cultural heritage claim in this incident will not be as strong as finder’s claim because in this scenario the Titanic is located in international waters with Great Britain exerting a claim to the wreckage. Although underwater cultural heritage (UCH) is a broad concept and will enable works of art to be adequately cared for by the nation that has maximum ties and a vested interest in the wreck the Titanic was not a vessel sponsored by Great Britain. Furthermore, the company that owned the Titanic relinquished ownership rights of the ship upon its wreckage, on the premise that both the ship and all the contents in could not be salvaged. Although Great Britain will presumably have more resources to display and preserve the items than a finder, the finder’s claim in this scenario may be considered a bonafide claim in good faith due to these factors.


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