NEW YORK, AUG. 25 -- Amid renewed talk of "grave robbing" and "exploitation," leaders of a controversial expedition to the wreck of the RMS Titanic today confirmed plans to have actor Telly Savalas unveil their recovered artifacts in a globally broadcast TV "docutainment" from Monte Carlo. They also revealed that their French-based international venture is financed largely by North American money, much of it emanating from a retired BMW dealer in Greenwich, Conn.
Robert Chappaz, chairman and managing director of the Paris-based Taurus International offshore operations firm, said the state-of-the-art, 70-day salvage effort has been in preparation for nearly two years, but solidified its financial base only in the past few weeks, even as its three-person mini-sub was sifting through eerily evocative artifacts two miles beneath the ocean surface.
Chappaz made his disclosure after the expedition's first American press conference here, a sometimes fractious affair called to stem mounting criticism of the expedition for "exploiting" one of the world's greatest maritime disasters. The Titanic, in its day the largest movable object ever made by man, sank April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. Survivors and relatives of the more than 1,500 who perished have urged that the wreck be left undisturbed as a memorial to those who went down with the historic ship.
Chappaz and other expedition spokesmen, however, insisted they were treating both the wreck and its artifacts with reverence and respect, merely retrieving poignant bits of history to be displayed where the people of the world can see and learn from them.
"We've got a ship that's been trying to get to New York for 75 years," said George Tulloch, the former BMW salesman who is now managing director of a partnership called Oceanic Research & Exploration Ltd. "We just want to help it do so."
He and other speakers at the two-hour press conference emphasized repeatedly that no Titanic artifacts would be sold. Instead, they said, they would be scientifically preserved and taken on a world tour after a two-hour worldwide television spectacular Oct. 28 in Monte Carlo. The live program, to be narrated by Savalas, will be produced by Westgate Productions of Hollywood, the same firm that last year had Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault. John Joslyn, one of Westgate's founders, said he didn't think that was exploitation either. "The term we use is 'docutainment' " he said. "We find people don't always watch documentaries" without some drama to them, and while "we're not doing 'Ben Hur' by any means, we're happy to have a bit of crossover."
The 60-odd reporters and cameramen present, however, kept returning to the "exploitation" theme, chafing the patience of Chappaz and Tulloch, and of Robert Slavitt, the jowly general counsel of Oceanic Research.
"Look, in a sense everything in America is exploitation, because most people in this country are trying to make a profit," Slavitt said. "And that's perfectly proper. You people have written articles about the Titanic to sell newspapers. Is that exploiting the Titanic? ... There's almost a book a week written about the Holocaust, and their authors expect to make a reasonable profit ... Yet nobody calls that exploiting the Holocaust."
That drew a protest from an unidentified reporter in a yarmulke, who declared Slavitt's comparison "obscene" and demanded an apology. He didn't get it. "You're entitled to your point of view," Slavitt said, "and I'm entitled to mine."
The sometimes bizarre press conference was merely the latest odd development in the current Titanic expedition, which since first hints of its existence leaked out last spring has appeared at various times to be part science project, part spy novel and part tent show. While scientists at the Institute for Research and Exploitation Beneath the Sea (IFREMER), the highly respected French agency whose submarine, ships and scientists are actually performing the undersea work, have sought gamely to keep the focus on the trailblazing technology of their mission, controversy over the expedition has persisted with accusations of "grave robbing" and reports of mysterious international mystery men bankrolling the scheme.
Although evasive about the financing during the news conference, Chappaz and Tulloch later explained that much of the mystery about the expedition has been caused by a cast of financial partners that has changed almost daily since the expedition began last month. Part of the difficulty, they said, has been caused by uncertainty on the part of potential investors about the prospects for a return on their dollar. Legislation now in Congress, for example, would prohibit the importation of Titanic artifacts, and possibly even bar their exhibit for profit. (If necessary, they said, the collection would be displayed here on a nonprofit basis.) Only last Wednesday were the finalfunds nailed down. Until then, IFREMER's ships were literally afloat on credit.
While technical operations are in the hands of IFREMER and Taurus, Tulloch said, the financial operations are in the hands of Oceanic, which he said amounts to a tripartite partnership of himself, Westgate's Joslyn and Carlos Piaget, an heir to the Swiss watch fortune who also has homes in the United States and Peru. Among the three, Tulloch said, they have raised about $6 million, the bulk of it coming from Joslyn and Westgate. He himself has "about a dozen" other investors, Tulloch said. He characterized them only as some of his former BMW customers -- "working people who have done well and are mostly into this for the adventure."
Slavitt agreed. "There's a certain romance about the Titanic," he told the news conference. "It's wonderful for a small-town lawyer to be part of it."
Though Chappaz had promised last week to provide an inventory of artifacts recovered so far, he would say today only that "more than 300 items" had been brought to the surface by the expedition.
Much of it, he suggested, is crockery (including different styles for first-, second- and third-class passengers). He showed stunning TV film of the French mini-sub Nautile, looking like some species of armored water insect, sinking through the miles-deep sea and delicately hefting a cooking pot from the ocean bottom with a new suction device on its manipulator arms. "So far," he said proudly, "we have not even broken a teacup."
In the audience were two expedition members who had ridden the Nautile down to where the Titanic lies broken and surrounded by the detritus of its Edwardian world. Yves Cornet, a professional diver who is general manager of Taurus, remembers the ghostly presence of a celluloid shirt collar, a leather belt and seven pairs of gentlemen's shoes laid out on the sea floor. Chappaz's wife Veronique talked of the Titanic's shattered stern, so torn by inner explosions "it was no longer recognizable as a ship ... And all around this violent wreckage, the most delicate things, dishes and teacups ... undamaged, brand-new ... looking like they were set down just yesterday."
Tulloch emphasized that the expedition intended only to take artifacts from the vast debris field around the wreck, and would not be "tearing sheet metal" on the Titanic's largely intact forward section. But in Paris yesterday, expedition spokesman Daniel Puget said the Nautile crew plans to search this week for a new quarry: John Jacob Astor's 1912 Renault auto, which the famous millionaire was said to have been shipping home in the Titanic's forward hold.