U.S. Seeks to Block Recovery of Titanic Artifacts

“It’s a really interesting question,” said John D. Kimball, a partner at Blank Rome, a law firm in Manhattan, who teaches maritime law at New York University. “It’s an attempt by the government to enforce treaty provisions and goes to the question of who has authority over the wreck site. The issues are tricky and the rulings are likely to be appealed.”

For ages, maritime law ruled that finders were keepers. A wreck’s discoverer, in other words, could expect to win possession of much, if not all, of the cargo and treasure. The Titanic case became a modern example of that old principle in action.

In parallel, slowly and at times painfully, the federal government moved to exert its authority over the Titanic salvage case. As directed by Congress, the State Department entered into negotiations with Canada, France and the United Kingdom to draft an international accord. In 2017, Congress enacted legislation to carry out the agreement. It prohibits “any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the R.M.S. Titanic unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce.”

In late 2019, as France and Canada sat on the sidelines, the accord entered into force between the United States and the United Kingdom.

A test case arose in 2020, when RMS Titanic announced it would seek to recover the Marconi wireless telegraph from the ship, famous for transmitting its distress calls. U.S. attorneys filed a legal challenge in the Virginia court, but the coronavirus pandemic cut short the proceedings and the planned expedition.

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