Upcoming auction of Titanic items sparks debate


(CBS News) HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA - For a century, the Titanic has rested in its watery grave more than two miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

This Sunday, the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the wreckage site on the ocean floor will go under U.N. protection.

Paul Henry Nargeolet has been to the Titanic six times. His company, RMS Titanic Inc., claimed the wreck in court in 1994. It owns the rights to all of the artifacts on and around the ship.

The company has salvaged more than 5,500 items including plates, money and jewelry. They even raised a 17-ton piece of the Titanic itself.

The artifacts are first cleaned and documented at a lab in Atlanta. They are then put on display at exhibits, including one in Las Vegas. RMS Titanic plans to see the collection in a winner-takes-all auction.

Nargeolet says he understands the concerns of family members who feel the sea grave shouldn't be disturbed. "But I think it's good to show to the public what was this tragedy. And that costs a lot of money."

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the connection to the Titanic is much more personal. 209 bodies of the victims were recovered and brought back to the city. 150 were buried in cemeteries around town. Each headstone shares the same infamous date.

Blair Beed says the maritime city on Canada's eastern coast was the closest major port to the wreck. Halifax sent two boats to recover the dead. Beed's grandfather worked at the funeral home where the bodies, including one of America's richest men John Jacob Astor IV, were identified.

"When you walk among the graves and stand in front of the grave of a housewife and listing the four children who were lost in the sinking with her, I think that's the real story," Beed said.

Those recovery ships also found pieces of the Titanic, a wooden deck chair, and ornate wood moldings from the ship's grand staircase floating in the water. The items are on display at Halifax's Maritime Museum. The collection in Las Vegas taken from the ocean floor does not sit well with some.

"I find it offensive," said Rob Gordon. "My great aunt's wedding dress is down there." Gordon lost two relatives on the Titanic. He feels the wreck should be left alone.

"It's a grave. There's a lot of people down there - their personal possessions," Gordon said. "I just think its wrong to sift through that stuff and put a price tag on it."

What's left of the Titanic is disappearing, eaten away by bacteria and time. Nargeolet worries that the chance to salvage this massive piece of history is fading. Gordon says the memories of what happened never will.

"The ship could disappear tomorrow," Gordon said. "It doesn't change the story, it doesn't change the history and it doesn't change how I feel about it."

  • Ben Tracy
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    Ben Tracy is a CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent based in Washington, D.C.