The great-granddaughter of a jewelry manufacturer who drowned in the RMS Titanic has begun inquiries aimed at claiming ownership of a satchel of jewels recovered last month from the wreckage of the historic liner.
The woman, Nancy Clark, has written the Titanic Historical Society asking for help in making contact with the French-based expedition still salvaging artifacts from the Titanic site, some 350 miles southwest of Newfoundland and 2 1/2 miles beneath the ocean's surface.
Clark furnished documents proving that her great-grandfather, Englehart C. Ostby, was returning from a gem-buying trip to Europe aboard the Titanic when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912. Ostby, then 65, was drowned along with some 1,500 other passengers and crewmen, but his body was later recovered and buried in Providence, R.I.
According to a 1912 edition of Manufacturing Jeweler, a professional journal, Ostby was a classic American success story: a Norwegian immigrant goldsmith who parlayed $3,000 into a Providence company -- Ostby & Barton -- that at the time of his death had become the nation's largest jewelry manufacturer, and the largest gold ring factory in the world.
The journal, in mourning Ostby's passing, noted that he died returning from one of his regular jewel-buying trips, "it having been his custom to visit European jewelry marts, especially Paris, always alert to artistic changes in the predominant styles of jewelry."
Clark, reached by phone last night, said she did not want personal publicity about her claim and asked that her home town remain undisclosed. She says she has no certain proof the recovered jewels are hers. In addition, she said, the insurance settlement of her great-grandfather's estate makes no specific mention of a satchel of jewels.
But her letter to the Historical Society states that "every two to three years there was a trip to Europe to retrieve gems and semiprecious stones ... and I feel quite sure they were on the ship when it sank. It seems very likely the satchel of jewels just recovered may belong to our family ... and I want this pointed out to someone who will notify the proper personnel involved in the project ..."
At the time of the satchel's recovery last month, Robert Chappaz, leader of the current Titanic expedition, said only that the group's French minisub had located and retrieved a leather suitcase "like a doctor's valise" that, when brought to the surface, proved to contain bank notes and a "breathtaking" collection of jewels. He said the satchel, amazingly intact after 75 years in the deep sea, had been found in the debris field on the ocean floor near the Titanic's shattered stern.
In the face of critics charging the expedition with exploiting what is, in part, a massive grave site, Chappaz said last month that recovered artifacts may be returned to any Titanic survivors or their descendants who can prove ownership.
However, Robert Slavitt of Norwalk, Conn., the expedition's general counsel, said yesterday that that decision is not Chappaz's to make. He noted that Chappaz's Paris-based firm, Taurus International, merely manages offshore operations for the expedition. Its North America-based financiers, Ocean Research and Exploration Ltd., hold all rights to the recovered artifacts, except the right to sell them.
Under maritime law, he said, anyone owning property salvaged from the sea is entitled to have it returned upon payment of a pro-rata cost of the salvage operation.
"Now, obviously we won't make anyone pay a million dollars for recovery of an Elks pin," he said, "but we're a long way from making a decision on these things. Frankly, we didn't expect to find anything that would fall into that category."
In any case, he said, all insurance claims on the Titanic were settled long ago, and the jewels would thus be the property of the insurer. "But if anyone can identify any artifact as their property," he said, "we will see they receive such rights to that property as the law permits."
Clark said last night she wrote her letter primarily to help those who display the jewels in a museum understand where they came from. "I don't want people to think we have a lot of money, because we don't," she said. "I'm just interested in things historical."