- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

RICHMOND Federal appellate judges sharply criticized a request by an Atlanta salvage company to sell artifacts recovered from the shipwreck Titanic.
"Those artifacts never belonged to you," said Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, waving his finger for emphasis as he lectured R.M.S. Titanic Inc. attorney Mark Davis "This is not your Titanic."
"Salvage is a trusteeship," the judge said during a hearing yesterday. "It is not as if it is abandoned property and you can do with it what you want. It's not a finders-keepers case."
R.M.S. Titanic Inc. wants the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court ruling barring it from selling the artifacts.
A University of Virginia lawyer urged the three-judge panel to force R.M.S. Titanic to keep a 10-year-old promise not to sell 6,000 pieces of the Titanic.
The Titanic, an 883-foot British luxury liner, sank in April 1912 on its first trip from England to the United States. It struck an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic about 1,600 miles northeast of New York. More than 1,500 people died.
Neal L. Walters argued that R.M.S. Titanic Inc. got its sole salvor status from a Norfolk federal judge in 1994 by promising never to sell the historic artifacts that the company raised from the ocean floor.
Instead, the company said it would make money by showing off Titanic artifacts in museums and traveling shows. More than 9 million people worldwide have seen the exhibits.
Now, with the company in financial straits, R.M.S. Titanic wants to sell some or all of the artifacts.
"You changed your position on whether you promised not to sell those artifacts," Judge Robert B. King told Mr. Davis. "That's a real problem with me."
The company said it never gave U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. an ironclad promise not to sell the artifacts, but only nonbinding business plans that have changed.
Mr. Davis argued that Judge Clarke's ban on sale of Titanic artifacts is inconsistent with admiralty law. Judge Clarke has presided over Titanic's salvage since 1992.
R.M.S. Titanic, which continues to salvage Titanic artifacts, said Judge Clarke's restrictions might force the company into bankruptcy or out of business.
Mr. Walters, supervising attorney at Virginia School of Law Appellate Litigation Clinic, was appointed by the appeals court to argue the case.
"For more than a decade RMST … assured the world and the District Court that they had no intention of selling any of the artifacts recovered from the Titanic wreck site," Mr. Walters wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Judge Clarke relied on those promises when he granted the company sole-salvor status, Mr. Walters wrote. The company cannot unilaterally break the promises to make more money, he said.

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