Nearly a century after the Titanic struck ice in the North Atlantic, a federal judge in Virginia is poised to preserve the largest collection of artifacts from the opulent oceanliner and protect the ship's resting place.
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, a maritime jurist who considers the wreck an "international treasure," is expected to rule within weeks that the salvaged items must remain together and accessible to the public. That would ensure the 5,900 pieces of china, ship fittings and personal belongings won't end up in a collector's hands or in a London auction house, where some Titanic artifacts have landed.
The judgment could also end the legal tussle that began when a team of deep-sea explorers found the world's most famous shipwreck in 1985.
The salvage company, RMS Titanic Inc., wants the court to grant it limited ownership of the artifacts.
At the same time, a cadre of government lawyers is helping Smith shape covenants to strictly monitor future activity at the Titanic wreck 2 1/2 miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Amid evidence of the ship's deterioration, experts and government lawyers say the sanctity of the Titanic must be properly protected as a memorial to the 1,522 people who died when it went down.
"For the most part, the value of Titanic is its history — and not from some pile of gold, silver and jewels," said Ole Varmer, an attorney in the international law office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose office has developed guidelines for the Titanic.