The story of the doomed luxury liner R.M.S. Titanic proved so alluring that divers were searching for the wreck seven decades after it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Once it was found in 1985, fanfare over retrieved relics led to exhibits around the world and a blockbuster movie.

But the company holding the rights to the ship and 5,500 artifacts has been mired in debt, placing the future of its collection in the hands of a bankruptcy court. On Thursday, a judge weighed plans for auctioning the largest trove of Titanic memorabilia, which already is drawing the interest of U.S. hedge funds, Chinese investors, British museums and award-winning director James Cameron.

Among the items is the bell a crow’s nest lookout rang to warn the bridge of an iceberg ahead; window grills from the first-class dining area; a passenger’s three-diamond ring; and a suitcase full of clothes owned by William Henry Allen, an English toolmaker immigrating to America. Titanic, once the biggest ocean liner ever built, sank almost two miles below the sea on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing more than 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers.

“It’s just sad to see that great ship of dreams, and the pieces of it, bounced around like an orphaned child,’’ said David Gallo, an oceanographer and former head of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who co-led an expedition to the wreck in 2010.

Artifact Owner
At least three groups are vying for the artifacts from the current owner, Premier Exhibitions Inc. It’s the successor to a company once owned by a wealthy Connecticut auto dealer, who bankrolled a French exhibition that retrieved artifacts from Titanic for the first time in 1987. The wreck was discovered two years earlier by oceanographer Robert Ballard, who refused to remove anything from the site, which is 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) under water.

Atlanta-based Premier organizes Titanic displays around the world, including at the Queen Mary hotel in Long Beach, California, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, and the Guangdong Museum in China. In recent years, the business was expanded to include exhibitions such as animatronic dinosaurs, human cadavers and bugs, along with sets and props from the Saturday Night Live TV show.

But the expansion left the company with more debt than it could handle. Four years ago, Premier sought to raise cash by selling Titanic items and rights to future salvage from the underwater site. It valued all the assets at $189 million, but the plan fizzled when no one was willing to pay that much, because legal covenants required the collection to be kept intact.

Too Costly
“At the time, we had many inquiries by people hoping to acquire one thing or a few things, but it wasn’t an option,’’ Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s auction house, said in an interview. Buying the items also obligated the owner to safeguard the wreck site, which proved “too much for any one buyer to agree to,” he said.

Premier filed for bankruptcy in 2016, and a judge reviewed possible auction plans at a hearing Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida.

A group of minority shareholders wants the artifacts sold to the highest bidder, either as a group or individually, to generate $10 million to cover their claims and leave ample funds to compensate majority investors. A federal judge in Norfolk, Virginia, oversees salvage activities at the wreck and must approve any sale.

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