This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Some 98 years after its maiden voyage ended in a disastrous sinking that took over 1,500 lives, the salvaged remains of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic have edged closer to judicial resolution in a case that has been ongoing for more than a dozen years in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
On Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith granted a 100 percent salvage award for artifacts recovered in the 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004 expeditions to the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic by the corporate salver.
The case began in August, 1993 when a “warrant for the arrest” of the RMS Titanic was filed in Richmond’s federal court, about 81 years after the Titanic had its rendezvous with history. Some pieces of the vessel, and ultimately “horse blanket” U.S. currency, as well as coin, was filed with the Court as evidence of entitlement to salvage the vessel.
By 1996, as required by the Court, notice to other potential salvers and interested parties had been given by publication. Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association (LLSP) was the only party to file a claim. RMST and LLSP subsequently entered into a settlement agreement, and the Court dismissed LLSP’s claim with prejudice.
The underlying purpose of salvage law is the complete salvaging of a distressed vessel and to preserve its property. As a consequence, courts sitting in admiralty have the authority to grant exclusive salvage rights and salvage awards to salvers who “have the intention and the capacity to save the property.”
On April 10, 1912, the largest, safest and most luxurious ship ever to sail the North Atlantic, the RMS Titanic, set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to her rendezvous with history and destiny.
On arrival at New York on April 18, 1912, survivors of the Titanic almost immediately engaged the New York medallist firm of Dieges & Clust to create a medallic commemoration in 14 karat gold.
The commemorative is irregular in shape and features a crowned head of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, his beard flowing down either side, metamorphosing into dolphins and terminating in an anchor. The Carpathia appears at the center amidst icebergs.
Sized at 39.2mm in height and 35 mm wide, the medal is inscribed “Presented to the Captain, Officers & Crew of R.M.S. Carpathia In Recognition of Gallant & Heroic Services from the Survivors of the S.S. Titanic April 15, 1912 Dieges & Clust N.Y.”
A total of 12 of these medals are believed to have been struck and distributed on May 29, 1912, when the Carpathia made her first return to New York. One of those who received the gold medal was Gustav Rath, whose medal was part of Sotheby’s July 1997 sale.
The tale of the Titanic has two numismatic twists, and one irony. The gold medal from the survivors is one. The coins and money of the 1,500 souls who perished are another.
For now, the salvage proceeds are secure, and the coin and currency – worth more as a curiosity than for their enhanced numismatic value – will await the decision of the Court as to how it may be sold.