Plundering the Titanic


Oct. 30, 2006 — -- Picture this. It is 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912.

You are one of the 1,523 people about to perish on the brand-new "unsinkable" Titanic, but you don't know it yet. Perhaps you are one of those having dinner, or lounging in a deck chair, when someone yells out, "Iceberg. Right ahead."

As the first lifeboat was lowered at 12:40 a.m. on April 15, you probably think there is nothing more precious in this world than your body. You would be wrong.

No one is going to pay much for your bones in that watery grave, but the furniture you sat on, the silverware you used, and even the window you may have tried to escape through, will eventually be morbid collector's items, which will make some people a whole lot of money.

"Searching the wreckage is big business, considering a life jacket of cork and fabric sold for £43,000 [$77,000] last month," BBC producer Ian Cundall said to ABC News.

Cundall, whose TV documentary "Inside Out" explores the illegal trade in Titanic memorabilia, says many of the plundered items are so ordinary that you would never think of them as priceless.

"It's something that you couldn't even put in a frame, and something you wouldn't want on the wall," he said.

He also tells ABC News that "a deck chair would sell for £100,000 [$190,000], and a copy of the dinner menu from the Titanic's last night went for $500,000. … The prices are just stupendous."

The last British survivor of the Titanic disaster condemned black-market dealers today, after it emerged that relics from the world-famous shipwreck were up for sale.

Millvina Dean, 94, of Hampshire, England, who was just an infant when the ship went down, said the sale of items from the Titanic was "awfully wrong" and showed the greed of those involved.

"My father [who died on the ship] is still on there," she said to ABC News. "It's awfully wrong to take things especially from a ship where so many people perished. I don't suppose these people thought of that. … They just thought of the money."

U.S. law forbids the sale of relics from the Titanic, and allows only for salvaged items to be put on public display, not on the black market.

Yet, experts say that dozens of expeditions to the Titanic have plundered the ship, and taken their toll on the liner.

Tom Utley, whose marine engineering firm makes windows and port lights for many ships, tells ABC News that he was sent a stolen Titanic porthole to inspect.

Utley says it's worth $36,000.

"It took three of us to lift it, and it was an ugly-looking thing," he said. "Nobody would have kept this for aesthetic purposes, and above ground it probably would have corroded, whereas on the Titanic it would have been perfectly preserved 2½ miles down." asked him how much the porthole would have been worth at the time the Titanic sunk.

"About half a crown," he said.

Half-crown was a denomination of British money worth two shillings and sixpence, or one-eighth of a pound.

Calculations show that the porthole is worth $36,000 on the black market today; it was worth 22 cents attached to the wall of a sinking state room in April 1912.

Expeditions using minisubmarines, some of which have landed on the deck, have caused extensive damage.

Bill Willard, a Titanic expert who says he has been down to the weckage twice with a midget submersible, tells ABC News that the liner was being badly damaged by the expeditions, some of which now carry tourists.

Concerning one reported "rogue" expedition, Willard said to ABC News, "It did do some damage at the site, and they tried to break into the cargo hold to recover things."

He added that a friend who had been to the Titanic wreckage on a tourist cruise ship, which is organized every summer, had said the main mast had been damaged as if it had been rammed to get into the cargo hold.

"These are unique historical artifacts that belong in a museum," Willard told ABC News. "If they are recovered, they should be put on display for the whole world to see, rather than end up in a private collection or be sold on the black market, which is a travesty."

But there doesn't seem to be a way of stopping the bandits.

"As long as there is greed, as long as there's a chance for people to make a tremendous profit off this," Willard said to the BBC, "there will be an opportunity for someone to go out there and steal artifacts. It is tough to police the North Atlantic."

Additional reporting by Laura Westmacott and Roger Kaplinsky-Dwarika