Andrew James John Mackenzie
an historiography
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Owning the Titanic

Discovering the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985 prompted some astonishing news, answering the question of its final resting place which had been left unanswered for 73 years. The next question, however, was what to do with it now that it has been relocated? Who might have the right to journey down and retrieve certain artefacts or even the wreck itself? Would anybody actually have the right to own the wreck?

Ownership is a hard thing to determine for a vessel total loss occurring more than seven decades previously. Even though it was originally owned and managed by the White Star Line, which was subsumed by the Cunard line soon afterwards, it was difficult to establish the correct paper trial assigning accurate ownership for the Titanic. Insurance companies and Lloyd’s underwriters had additional problems in attempting to attribute financial ownership of any salvage made, whether of artefacts or the wreck itself.

Indeed, Paul Louden-Brown, historian and former vice-president of the Titanic Historical Society, identified the challenge faced by those insurers attempting to pursue a claim for potential salvage rights and proceeds of wreck:

“Any financial records and the actual certificates of insurance are now lost, it would be expensive to pursue a legal claim…particularly through the U.S. court system and any positive financial outcome is questionable.”

A recent document released by the RSA Insurance Group, an insurance policy issued by Royal Insurance, valued the hull and machinery of the vessel at a cost of £1 million. Indemnity sought from the White Star Line totalled £4,000 approximately from the Royal, the equivalent of £263,000 in the present day. Claims made to other insurers on risk amounted to £150,000 approximately overall. Richard Turner, marine director at RSA, described the market and claims payout at the time of the incident:

"Although a million pounds does not sound very much, it must have been one of the largest values of any ship afloat at the time, if not the largest. The fact that so many insurers were involved meant the risk was widely spread and everyone was affected by it."

Indeed, each of the hundred or so insurance firms held approximately 1% of the total value and sum insured of the vessel. Indeed, on 9 January 1912, broker Willis Faber & Co had come to Lloyd’s underwriting room to insure the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, on behalf of the White Star Line for coverage amounting to £95 million in the present day. There were many underwriters included, covering amounts ranging from £10,000 to £75,000. Broker, Willis, negotiated the risk for a total premium of £7,500. Following the catastrophe, despite the claims involved, both in terms of severity and amount, Lloyd’s underwriters indemnified owners in full within thirty days.

Even as soon as news broke concerning the total loss, underwriters were confident of the even distribution of the risk across the insurance market:



APRIL 16, 1912

LONDON, April 16 – The underwriters at Lloyds were staggered at the news, but it is declared that the insurance on the lost vessel is so evenly distributed that none of the underwriters are likely to be hard hit. The reassuring cables dispatches received had sent the reinsurance rate down to 25 guineas per cent and the underwriters closed up at night hopeful that all was well. When they opened this morning a little business was done at 90 guineas, but the rate was quickly raised to 95, which is known as a “total loss” rate. The exact amount of the property loss was hard to ascertain today. Underwriters stated that they could not say accurately what securities were on board the ship as yet.

It is generally estimated, however, that with the cargo the Titanic would represent a value of approximately $12,500,000. Of this total $750,000 was retained by the White Star company with owners’ risk, and the balance was placed on the insurance market in London, Liverpool, Hamburg and elsewhere. The officials of the White Star company say that so far as they know every passenger whose name appeared on the lists cabled yesterday sailed on board the Titanic. There may, they say, have been a few who changed their minds at the last moment, but at the offices up to the present no cancellations from or additions to the passenger list have been heard of. As a matter of fact these would be known only to the pursuer of the Titanic.

One such policy recently sold at auction concerned the line insured by Atlantic Mutual for $5 million total loss only, which was purchased two weeks prior to its fateful voyage:

A copy of the written lines signed by the Lloyd's underwriters:

Attempts at some sort of financial recompense were sought after by some individuals. Following the newly formed RMS Titanic, Inc., the salvor-in-possession resulting from its dives off the wreck, were permitted certain US rights to any artefacts salved from the vessel, but this did not confer rights of ownership onto the wreck itself. However, opponents, Marex, challenged this decision, claiming that RMS Titanic, Inc. had abandoned its rights following the long-time taken to return to the wreck. Another organisation wished to charge tourists the option of visting the wreck for a fee of $32,500. Moreover, insurer, Liverpool and London, the firm which had indemnified a number of passenger policies, successfully claimed from RMA Titanic, Inc. out of court.

Since then, RMS Titanic, Inc. has successful recovered over 5,000 artefacts. Louden-Brown reiterates, however, that the right for recover can only apply to dives in the US:

“There is nothing to prevent a company based in the UK or any other country from diving and recovering material from the vessel. If the items recovered were landed in a U.S. port, then they would be seized and possibly the diving vessel impounded. So any operations would have to begin and end in a country other than the U.S.”


Despite the efforts of RMS Titanic, Inc., ascribing rights of ownership and salvage rights still remain a difficulty. Legal challenges will continue to harry any attempts to physically retrieve the wreck in situ and in full. Criticism still pervades any attempts to salve the wreck and to recover any artefacts that might remain, which for many, still remains a site of remembrance and a memorial to the lives lost in excess of 1,500.  


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