- RMS Titanic Inc. was granted retrieve and display rights to the Titanic shipwreck.
- The private company salvaged over 5,000 artifacts with the help of Paul-Henri Nargeolet.
- Nargeolet was on the Titan when it imploded; the artifacts were almost sold in an auction in 2018.
The French diver who died in the Titan submersible had spent two decades working with a controversial company with the sole right to retrieve and display items from the Titanic wreck site.
Paul-Henri Nargeolet, one of the most prolific Titanic divers in history, led five expeditions for the private salvage firm RMS Titanic Inc. to collect over 5,000 artifacts from the ship. The artifacts included items as small as shaving kits and pipes and as large as chandeliers on board the vessel.
His legacy and the company he spent many years working for highlight the debate surrounding grave tourism and salvaging shipwrecks.
RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions, first claimed salvor-in-possession rights to the Titanic in 1986 and was granted such rights by court order. At the time, some regarded RMS Titanic Inc. and Nargeolet as high-tech grave robbers, Insider’s Katherine Long reported.
The company says its mission is “exploring the wreck of Titanic and its surrounding ocean areas; obtaining oceanographic material and scientific data; and using the data and retrieved artifacts for historical verification, scientific education, and public awareness.”
The company also often works with multinational regulatory bodies and nonprofits dedicated to the historical preservation of the Titanic. It currently runs "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" in Orlando, Florida, where much of the historic memorabilia taken from the ship is displayed.
However, RMS Titanic Inc. has also attracted scrutiny concerning whether a private company should own the rights to historical artifacts that critics believe are in the public's interest.
In 2016, Premier Exhibitions and RMS Titanic Inc. filed for bankruptcy and were able to put the collection up for auction. At the time, the man who discovered the Titanic wreckage, Robert Ballard, and "Titanic" director James Cameron backed a movement led by museums to get the collection out of the hands of private owners and collectors, but it ultimately failed. The auction never happened either, and RMS Titanic Inc. still owns the collection to this day.
Most recently, the company courted controversy after requesting in 2020 to salvage a Marconi wireless telegraph machine, which sent out distress calls while the ship was sinking, to add to an exhibit — potentially at the expense of the roof of the underwater remains. A judge approved the request, but the company paused the project due to financial reasons.
In a 2012 interview with Forbes, Nargeolet was asked about the ethics of taking from the site. He said he believed that while detractors had valid concerns, the collections would help the "education and preservation" of the ship's history.
"I remember talking to one of them, a woman, who told me, 'I don't like what you're doing because my father died on the ship,'" Nargeolet said at the time. "I'm OK with that. But I've met other survivors who like what we're doing. They believe that it helps keep the ship and its legacy alive… My belief is that it is good to record the artifacts, that it's good for education and preservation. That's the goal."
RMS Titanic Inc did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.