Reports that Titanic items are to be auctioned by Guernsey’s Auctioneers & Brokers went viral after an article outlining the pending sale was published on Yahoo! News on January 5th, 2012. Steve Szkotak reported that 5,000 artifacts from the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, the ill-fated and infamous ship that sank nearly 100 years ago on April 15th, 1912, are being packaged as a single lot eligible for bids by the public rather than museums or historical societies.The sale is subject to court approval, but the event begs the question: How is this public auction any different from the sale of items obtained through grave robbing?
Salvage rights and the fate of relics retrieved from the Titanic have been heatedly debated ever since divers started retrieving items from the site of the shipwreck after the exact location was discovered in 1983. Many individuals seem to be in agreement that obtaining relics for the sake of preservation, historical significance and an opportunity for the public to view the items is far different from the private ownership of the personal items of over 1,500 passengers and crew members who lost their lives on that fateful day.
While those in favor of the relic recovery are quick to argue that time and the destructive environment of the ocean floor will eventually obliterate these artifacts, I counter with this: How is that any different than traditional graves? The earth slowly breaks down and reclaims the bodies, items and possessions buried in graveyards; why should a watery grave be any different? These 5,000 items–including a portion of the hull, itself–are more than enough to record this piece of history. Even under the sea, the personal possessions within the grave of the Titanic wreckage should deteriorate and disappear just like any other relics in the graves of lost loved ones.
With this auction, heralded as the “most significant auction ever handled by that [auction] house” by Guernsey’s President Arlan Ettinger, the highest bidder will be in personal, legal possession of 5,000 personal effects, ship fragments and other items retrieved during dives beginning in 1987. According to Szkotak, the RMS Titanic, Inc., is ultimately behind the public sale of these artifacts. “The public company decided to auction the collection in response to shareholders’ wishes that the ‘company go out and make money,’” he wrote.
The question I pose to you, the readers, is this: How is this auction any different than going into the remnants, wreckage or debris left behind after any horrific incident in which lives were lost, and selling those relics for profit? How would American citizens have reacted if salvage experts rummaged through Ground Zero in search of items that belonged to those who lost their lives during the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City? Yes, nearly 100 years have passed since the Titanic sank beneath the Atlantic, but there are countless descendents of those who lost their lives–do salvage rights for relics beneath the ocean really remove the fact that this is grave robbing for the sake of financial and personal gain?
Without a doubt, the Titanic is one tragedy that has fascinated people since it occurred. Countless films, documentaries, books and TV specials have been produced surrounding the events leading up to and composing the sinking of the ship, and many people with no family connection to the victims of the sinking are still deeply touched by the story. It is a real-life lesson on the arrogance of mankind, and our desire–and ultimate inability–to ignore nature’s prowess and influence in our lives.
The 5,000 piece collection was appraised at $187 million U.S. dollars back in 2007, though no estimates or expectations for the 2012 sale have been made as of yet. Are millions upon millions of dollars worth the blatant disregard and respect for the memory of the Titanic survivors and victims? What does our general allowance of this type of behavior say about our “modern society?” The general response to Szkotak’s original article on Yahoo! News has been overwhelmingly negative; the vast majority of individuals replying to the news in the article’s comment section have protested that this auction is “grave robbing,” “so wrong,” and even the “capitalizing on a misfortune that happened 100 years ago.”
My heart goes out to the descendants of the passengers and crew of the RMS Titanic, and everyone who has been touched by the story of those heartbreaking events. While one could argue that even a single dollar made off the salvaging, memorializing or recreating of the events in film is a profit ill-made, I can’t help but be disgusted, horrified and outraged by this “significant” auction and ultimate financial profit of personal items retrieved from the watery grave of over 1,500 souls.
Steve Szkotak, “Titanic items to be sold 100 years after sinking,” Yahoo! News