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October 27, 2009

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Salvage group plans Titanic trip as court hearing unfolds

THE company that has exclusive rights to salvage the Titanic is planning a possible expedition to the world's most famous shipwreck in 2010.

The first expedition to the North Atlantic wreck site since 2004 was revealed in a filing by RMS Titanic Inc in the United States District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, where four days of hearings began yesterday on the company's claim for a salvage award.

Lawyers for RMS Titanic Inc confirmed the expedition plans but declined to discuss them in detail.

"That is something that is being looked at right now but it's not in any way a done deal," attorney Robert W. McFarland said in an interview.

Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, a maritime jurist who considers the wreck an "international treasure," will preside over the hearings.

They are intended to determine a salvage award and establish legal guarantees that thousands of Titanic artifacts remain intact as a collection and forever accessible to the public. Some pieces have ended up in London auction houses.

The 5,900 pieces of china, ship fittings and personal belongings are valued in excess of US$110 million and are displayed around the world by Premier Exhibitions Inc, an Atlanta company. RMS Titanic is a subsidiary of Premier.

The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in international waters on April 15, 1912, and has been subject to competing legal claims since an international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard found it in 1985. Since then, RMS Titanic has retrieved artifacts during six dives.

Courts have declared it salvor-in-possession - meaning it has exclusive rights to salvage the Titanic - but have explicitly stated it does not own the 5,900 artifacts or the wreck.

At the hearings this week, lawyers for RMS Titanic will essentially seek title to the artifacts and a monetary award for its salvage costs. More than a dozen experts will be called to support the company's claim.

In seeking a salvage award, RMS Titanic will have to document the labor it devoted to its expeditions, the risks incurred during the 4-kilometer trips beneath the Atlantic to the wreck site, and the preservation efforts and archeological value of the wreck and its contents, among other factors.

If the court agrees to RMS Titanic's request, the company could sell the entire collection to a museum with court approval. But the company has said it has no plans to do so.

The judge will consider a competing claim. Douglas Faulkner Woolley, a British citizen, is challenging RMS Titanic's legal claim to the wreck site and plans his own salvage operation.


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