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Bankrupt owner of Titanic artifacts seeks buyer, and director James Cameron may come to the rescue

Bankrupt owner of Titanic artifacts seeks buyer, and director James Cameron may come to the rescue
A 17-ton portion of the hull of the Titanic is lifted from the ocean floor in 1998. The parent company of RMS Titanic Inc. has filed for bankruptcy protection. (Associated Press)

More than 100 years after the Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic, artifacts salvaged from the world's most famous ship disaster are scheduled to be auctioned off.

But to get your hands on a piece of history, you will need to make a bid on all of the more than 5,500 items pulled from the ocean floor. Also, you may have to go head to head with a wealthy, motivated bidder: Oscar-winning director James Cameron.

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Premier Exhibitions, the Atlanta-based company that retrieved thousands of artifacts from the ill-fated liner, filed for bankruptcy protection last year and has offered to sell shoes, eyeglasses, statues, dishware, handbags and other Titanic relics to pay off some of its debts. Also for sale are the rights to salvage more items from the wreck.

Court records show that the company claims total debts of $15 million, with $36 million in assets.

A bankruptcy judge has set a deadline of July 21 for interested buyers to bid for the collection.

Most of the 5,500 artifacts are kept in undisclosed facilities controlled by Premier Exhibitions, with about 1,500 items on display in shows run by a subsidiary company, RMS Titanic Inc. The exhibitions are now operating in Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; Flint, Mich.; China; and Hungary.

Premier Exhibitions had considered selling the Titanic artifacts in 2012 but decided against the sale. The company is now under new leadership, said Tim Quinn, spokesman for Premier Exhibitions.

Cameron, who directed the Academy Award-winning movie "Titanic," has proposed teaming up with Robert Ballard, the professor of oceanography who helped discover the wreckage in 1985, to bid for the artifacts, according to David Gallo, an oceanographer who helped lead a 2010 expedition to the Titanic.

Gallo said he has spoken with both Cameron and Ballard, who told him they want to take the collection back to England.

"Jim is dedicated and has a certain passion for the site," Gallo said. "He would really like to see the collection stay together."

Calls to a Cameron associate were not returned. Ballard is working on an expedition in the Channel Islands and could not be reached, a representative said.

The Titanic sank after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing more than 1,500 people.

After the remains of the ship were found 73 years later about 2½ miles under the ocean's surface, Premier Exhibitions won the salvage rights to the wreck. Since then, several expeditions have returned to the site to collect artifacts and map the ocean floor.

Gallo said the artifacts include letters and personal items that tell the story of the passengers on the ship. Expeditions have recovered some delicate artifacts intact, such as perfume bottles with perfume still inside, but other items have disintegrated to such an extent that they cannot be displayed, Gallo added.

"Every time we go down we end up with more questions," he said.

Gallo said he hopes the bankruptcy judge ensures that whoever wins the bidding will keep the collection together and make the items accessible to the public.

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"This is an experience that people can have that is true. It's not animation, and it's not concocted," he said.

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