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Who gets the Titanic treasures?

Negotiations to decide the fate of a $189 million collection of artifacts from the Titanic are going into overtime.

Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, which is seeking to sell 5,500 items recovered from the shipwreck site over the past 25 years, said today that it's "in discussions with multiple parties" for the purchase of the collection. The legal rulings that paved the way for the sale require that the collection must be sold as a single lot — and that the buyer must make the artifacts available for public exhibition and research.

The deadline for sealed bids passed more than a week ago, and since then Premier Exhibitions has been weighing the offers.

"In order for the company to settle on the most appropriate bidder and maximize the ultimate value of the artifacts for shareholders, it conduct these negotiations and due diligence in confidence," Premier said in a statement. The company said it would "provide an additional update to shareholders as soon as practical," and would reschedule a news conference that had been planned for Wednesday to announce the winning bid.

Premier's subsidiary, RMS Titanic Inc., is the only company with legal permission to recover objects from the Titanic, which ran into an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912, during its maiden trans-Atlantic voyage from Southampton to New York. More than 1,500 of the ship's 2,228 passengers and crew lost their lives in the disaster. The 100th anniversary of the tragedy is boosting interest in the Titanic to new heights.

In addition to the physical artifacts, RMS Titanic has been collecting data and high-resolution imagery of the wreck site, two miles beneath the Atlantic surface. Its most recent expedition took place in 2010. The archaeological assets, including underwater video and 3-D mapping, are among the property being sold.

"Titanic is slowly being consumed by iron-eating microbes on the sea floor and, at some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be only a memory," Mark Sellers, chairman of Premier and RMS Titanic, said back in January. "We are proud of what we have accomplished as salvor-in-possession of the wreck site and we believe we have faithfully honored the legacy of those who were lost. After all those efforts, we have determined that the time has come for us to transfer ownership of this collection to a steward who is able to continue our efforts and will preserve and honor her legacy."

Actually, three major Titanic auctions are taking place this month. In addition to the Premier Exhibitions sale, which is being managed by Guernsey's auction house, there's a Bonhams auction set for Sunday in New York, and an RR Auction online sale due to begin April 19. Last month, the highlight of a London auction was the sale of a first-class menu from the Titanic's last lunch for $120,000.

It's not clear whether any more artifacts will ever be brought up from the Titanic site. Beginning on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the remains of the Titanic will be covered by a 2001 U.N. convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage. In a statement issued last week, UNESCO said parties to the convention can seize artifacts taken from the Titanic, and prevent exploration of the site that is "deemed unscientific or unethical."

Neither the United States nor Canada are parties to that convention. However, UNESCO said the protections specified in the convention are also reflected in an international agreement on Titanic salvage that was signed by those two countries as well as France and Britain.

One of the most outspoken critics of Titanic salvaging has been oceanographer Robert Ballard, who was one of the co-discoverers of the Titanic wreck site in 1985. He has long said that if he could do it all over again, he would not publicize the location of the wreck, and today on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," he said he now wishes he claimed the site for himself.

"When I found the Titanic, I went to the courts, and I said, 'Well, can I own the Titanic?' And they said, yes. It's an abandoned shipwreck. All you have to do is go down and retrieve one object of saucer or plate or something, come into the courts, and we'll make you the owner. But we'll make you the owner under one condition, that you remove it from the bottom of the ocean. ... I was opposed to that. I wished I'd gone and got that one cup and brought it up and said, 'I want to turn it into an underwater museum.' I'd rather take people there through the technologies we now have, and I really regret I didn't do that."

In retrospect, do you think that would have been the better course? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts about the fate of Titanic artifacts in the comment space below.

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Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.