London: They have survived, against the odds, for more than a century on the seabed, carefully recovered one by one to preserve for future generations.
But the painstaking work of archaeologists to retrieve and protect the sunken treasures of the Titanic could be unravelled, they fear, as the right to explore the wreck may soon be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Premier Exhibitions, a US firm, is planning to auction off its 5500-strong collection of artefacts to wipe out debts estimated at up to £9 million ($15 million). It is reported the firm may also auction off salvaging rights to raise more money.
William Neill, who edited a 2013 book on the Titanic legacy, said: “I can just imagine salvage rights being offered to amateurs from China, Japan and Australia, who are interested in Titanic exhibitions. The most awful scenario would be to see bits of the hull being raised from the seabed which doesn’t bear thinking about.”
During its maiden voyage between Southampton and New York in April 1912, the “unsinkable” ship hit an iceberg about 640 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1500 passengers of the 2224 on board perished.
It was thought to have sunk in one piece until, in 1985, Dr Robert Ballard found that it had cracked in two more than three kilometres below the surface. It prompted an immediate dilemma of ownership, given that it sank in international waters. But, since 1994, RMS Titanic Inc has been the only company that can legally sanction a diving mission to the remains.
Archaeologists have repeatedly criticised what they say is a commercially-motivated enterprise, including in 1998, after it raised a section of the Titanic’s hull.
In June last year, RMS Titanic’s parent company, Premier, filed for bankruptcy. Papers submitted at a court in Florida, US, say the company hopes to auction off its entire collection of artefacts before February 2018.
Fraser Sturt, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, is worried about who will be able to apply for salvaging rights. “It’s a concern and my natural preference is not to see it exploited for commercial gain and leaving it to rot is not as negative as it sounds,” he said.
Katie Rosevear, from Cornwall, whose great-uncle Stephen Jenkin died in the disaster, said any further salvaging of the Titanic sounded “horrific”.
Mr Jenkin boarded the ship to work in the copper mines in Michigan.
“It should be left to rest in peace,” she said. “My uncle’s body was never found and it’s a possibility his body is still aboard the ship.”
Simon Medhurst, from Chelmsford, Essex, whose great-grandfather Robert Hitchens died, fears the collection could be bought by an individual who does not exhibit it.
Mr Hitchens was at the helm of the vessel as it struck the iceberg and has been blamed for the disaster. “It would obviously be a shame if it was plundered,” said Mr Medhurst.
In another twist, James Cameron, the director of the 1997 film Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is reportedly planning to buy the entire collection for £165 million.
Mr Cameron, along with Dr Ballard, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the Royal Geographical Society, wants to return the artefacts to Belfast.
John Creamer, treasurer of the British Titanic Society, said: “It would be great if it was kept intact and the collection is not scattered and artefacts are instead returned to Belfast or kept at Greenwich.”
Liam Kennedy, a history professor at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “The collection would contribute greatly if it was included in the Titanic exhibition here.”
Premier Exhibitions failed to respond to a request for comment, but spokesman Dave Vermillion told the Mail on Sunday it was “100 per cent committed” to safeguarding the artefacts and the wreck site. “We are looking for someone to honour and celebrate the legacy of the Titanic,” he said.