By Rhys Blakely - The Australian
A planned auction of Titanic treasures could finally settle the matter of who owns the fortune yielded by history's most beguiling wreck.
More than 5500 items would be offered in one single lot, according to plans submitted to US stock market regulators. The items on sale would range from jewels and fine china to a 15-tonne portion of hull.
In 2007 the collection was valued at $US189 million and some have claimed that artefacts worth billions remain on the seabed. For years, however, the treasures have been at the centre of a legal storm and the fate of the latest planned sale now rests in the hands of a US judge.
The auction would coincide with the centenary on April 12 of the sinking of the "unsinkable" Belfast-built steamship, an event that has cast a morbid spell on generations. The anniversary will be marked by the screening of a 3D version of James Cameron's Oscar-winning film and a big-budget ITV drama by Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey. There will be festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Investors in RMS Titanic, the company that acquired the salvage rights in 1994, have squabbled over how to maximise returns from the public's fascination with a wreck that has spawned at least 17 movies, 18 documentaries and 130 books.
In 2002, the salvagers had wanted to sell more than 1000 small items, such as recovered toiletries, to help recoup expenses running into tens of millions of dollars. Instead, after a US court stymied the scheme, they were reduced to flogging recovered lumps of coal, which are not considered artefacts under law, for $US25 each.
A fresh set of court judgments means that new auction plans stand a chance. If the sale goes ahead, buyers will be offered a trove amassed during seven trips to a site about 4km under the North Atlantic.
The recovered treasures have formed an exhibition that has been viewed by more than 20 million people worldwide. The show is currently at the giant Luxor casino in Las Vegas, where visitors pay $US28 each to view items ranging from soap dishes and spittoons to passenger papers and decorative sections from Titanic's famous Grand Staircase. The crown jewel of the collection is regarded to be the so-called "Big Piece" - a section of hull that weighs 15 tonnes and is more than 9m long.