Titanic artifacts valued at $200M head for auction

More than a century after the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, costing 1,503 people their lives, the highest bidder at an October auction will walk away with 5,500 artifacts retrieved from its wreckage. The collection is being sold to satisfy the bankruptcy debts of Premier Exhibitions, the company that collected them from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and mounted exhibitions around the world to show them off.

That winning offer will have to be higher than the "floor bid" of $19.5 million made by hedge funds Apollo Global Management, Alta Fundamental Advisors and PacBridge Capital Partners. Their proposal is backed by Premier CEO and top shareholder Daoping Bao. Any new buyer would need to submit a bid for the artifacts, which are being auctioned as a group at an Atlanta law firm, of at least $21.5 million to be considered. 

Appraisers have valued the Titanic items at $200 million. The salvage rights to the ship are also being sold.

Clearly, interest in the tragedy among members of the public, collectors, and museums remains strong. A cracker from the ship sold for $23,000 last year. A violin owned by the Titanic's orchestra leader fetched more than $1.4 million in a 2013 auction. Two menus went for $140,000 in 2012. According to a court filing, the Premier Exhibitions' artifacts are especially desirable because they came from the depths of the ocean as opposed to being scooped up from the surface.

"The memorabilia is just so rare and almost impossible to find now," said John Miottel, who operates Calfornia's Miotel Museum, which has four watches worn by Titanic passengers in its collection. "We have been very lucky. We have found some nice items."

A group of U.K. museums in July announced that they were raising money to bid for the artifacts, a campaign that won the endorsement of both James Cameron, director of the movie "Titanic," and oceanographer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck in 1985. In an interview with CBS News in July, Cameron, who has visited the ship's watery grave more than two dozen times, said he felt a "a responsibility to honor the dead, to honor the tragedy."

Said Cameron: "Securing the irreplaceable collection of artifacts, protecting and preserving them for future generations, by placing them in the public trust, is a unique and important opportunity to honor the 1,503 passengers and crew who died."

His point was echoed by Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society's archaeologist-in-residence, who told his organization's website: "Because of this bankruptcy, human history might go on the auction block and disappear from the public domain."

National Geographic also is backing the U.K. museums' plan to co-own and conserve the Titanic artifacts.

Among the more noteworthy holdings in the Premier Exhibitions sale are a cherub that was part of the Titanic's grand staircase for first-class passengers and a blue sapphire ring surrounded by 14 diamonds. More mundane items like clothing are also part of the sale.

Officials with Premier Exhibitions, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016, couldn't be reached for comment.

RMS Titanic, a unit of Premier, has been only company legally permitted to collect artifacts from the Titanic wreck since 1994. According to the company, it conducted eight dives from 1987 and 2010, during which more than 500,000 digital images and more than 1,570 hours of video were shot.

Premier has tried to sell its Titanic artifacts before but encountered difficulty because restrictions imposed by a federal judge make it hard to sell them piecemeal. 

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