A "doctor's-style valise" containing a "breathtaking" collection of jewels and other valuables has been recovered from the ocean floor near the RMS Titanic, the leader of an expedition to the legendary shipwreck announced yesterday.
The leather bag, which had not been spotted by U.S. submarines or cameras visiting the site in the past two years, also contains coins and bank notes of an as-yet undetermined nationality, the expedition leader, Robert Chappaz, said in a telephone interview from Paris.
"It is amazing, you know, that paper would continue to exist in the water after all this time," said Chappaz. "It proves organic material continues to exist" after 75 years in the dark, chill waters and crushing pressures of the Titanic wreck site, 2 1/2 miles beneath the ocean surface, some 350 miles southwest of Newfoundland.
Chappaz also disclosed that the expedition's three-person mini-sub Nautile had recovered a small safe, about three feet high, which apparently belonged in the office of the Titanic's assistant purser. The safe, which had been spotted and photographed by a U.S. expedition to the site last year, was located last week in the vast debris field surrounding the broken hull, Chappaz said, but hurricane winds and 40-foot seas on the surface late in the week prevented its recovery until yesterday. The valise was spotted this week near the shattered wreckage of the stern and recovered simultaneously with the safe.
"It is astonishing because everyone was talking about the safe and worrying about that and they just brought this bag up because they found it," Chappaz said. "But when they got the bag on the surface they look in and there is mud and jewels."
Talk of treasure has trailed the Titanic legend since the supposedly unsinkable giant liner went down April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. More than 1,500 persons were lost with the ship, including some of the world's richest aristocrats sailing in the twilight of the Edwardian age.
Chappaz said he had received no further details on the jewelry in radio reports from the French research ship Nadir at the site and cannot even be certain the jewels are genuine until they are examined onshore.
"But if you find them in a bag filled with bank notes and other valuables, you are left with two possibilities ... if you ask me," he said. "Either they belonged to some wealthy person who brought them in the bag from England or ... the bag belonged to someone who cleaned out the safe before the ship sank."
The $2.5 million Titanic expedition, scheduled to continue until Sept. 10, is a complex venture managed by Chappaz's Paris firm, Taurus International, and financed by an Anglo-Swiss consortium underwritten in part by an heir to the Piaget watch fortune. The consortium, chartered in London as Oceanics Research Exploration Ltd., contracted with the French Institute for Research and Exploitation of the Sea, a quasi-governmental agency that has provided the equipment and is conducting operations on the site.
Controversy has nagged the venture from its inception, with Titanic survivors and relatives of those lost urging that the liner be left undisturbed as a memorial to the dead.
Chappaz and other Taurus spokesmen have insisted they are respecting the ship and salvaging artifacts only from the vast debris field outside the hull. They say they have a contractual agreement with the consortium that no artifacts will be sold, and Chappaz said last week they might even return recovered artifacts to survivors or relatives of those lost who can prove ownership.
But the expedition encountered more criticism last week after announcing plans to open the assistant purser's safe in Monte Carlo Oct. 28, on a worldwide television spectacular engineered by the Westgate Film Group of Hollywood.
Chappaz said yesterday the choice of the Monte Carlo site may be rethought, but said the safe and any other such closed containers recovered still will be opened on TV at that time.
He said Taurus would hold a press conference in New York next Tuesday to detail an inventory of artifacts recovered, describe salvage methods and equipment, show film of the expedition and discuss plans for the artifacts.
He said all artifacts are still aboard the Nadir and none will be displayed until after transfer and conservation at a Paris laboratory run by the national utility, Electricite' de France.
He had no estimate of the value of any of them, including the jewels, but said that antique dealers in Amsterdam already have been advertising counterfeit Titanic artifacts for sale, including certificates of "authenticity."