Premier Exhibitions, the US firm that owns the rights to salvage items from the Titanic wreck, filed for Chapter 11 in a US Bankruptcy Court and is awaiting a ruling on what will happen to the 5500 items that are valued at hundreds of millions of pounds.
The firm asked to sell the artefacts to pay off its creditors. However, the process is complex because of the law governing the objects. Remains from the 1912 shipwreck were brought up from the deep in several expeditions in 1987, in the early 1990s and early 2000s. The first artefacts found in the 1987 search - around 2000 objects - are subject to bankruptcy court proceedings in Florida. The other artefacts are controlled under an existing court order via a federal court in Virginia which stipulates the items may only be sold under strict conditions requiring them to be sold together and to be made available for public display.
Premier Exhibitions subsidiary RMS Titanic Inc has been the only company that can legally sanction a diving mission to the wreck of the vessel.
Experts predict it is unlikely the court will allow a public auction and instead the items will have to be sold to an institution. However, if they were to come to auction it is likely UK auction firm Henry Aldridge & Son in Devizes, which holds regular Titanic memorabilia auctions, would be among the auctioneers considered for the job.
James Cameron, the director of the 1997 Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet Titanic film, is reportedly hoping to buy the entire collection for $165m in a joint venture with Titanic expert Dr Robert Ballard. The pair are reported to have teamed up with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and with National Geographic and if their bid is successful they plan to pledge some of the artefacts to the Titanic museum in Belfast, the city where the ship was built and launched.
Philadelphia-based Craig Sopin, a lawyer and Titanic memorabilia collector, said: “There was a tremendous fear that these artefacts would be broken up and sold off at auction and spread around.
“If they were sold by auction it would also diminish the value of other artefacts as it would flood the market.”
Sopin is hopeful that the artefacts could return to Belfast and said it would be a “relief if an institution buys them”.