The Scottish Maritime Museum faces potential insolvency over its nine-year efforts to dispose of its historic clipper, The City of Adelaide.
The remains of the ship rest on a development site owned by Ayrshire Metal Products and must be moved or deconstructed by 31 March.
The company is theoretically owed about £450,000 in rent (the market rate of £50,000 a year for nine years), but the museum, run by a charitable trust, cannot afford to move or dismantle the Grade A-listed vessel.
Jim Tildesley, Scottish Maritime Museum director, said: “We lease a slipway at £1 a year if asked, but the company has the ability to require us to remove it at any time and there is a penalty clause if we fail to do so.
“The level of penalty is subject to legal argument, but if our lawyers are wrong, the liability is greater than the museum’s assets.”
Bids to house the vessel, the world’s last surviving sail-powered passenger ship, have come from Adelaide, to which it ferried settlers, and Sunderland, where it was built. But neither city has sufficient funds to relocate and restore the vessel.
If nothing is resolved, the museum must secure funding for deconstruction of the ship, which will cost between £400,000 and £700,000.
But National Historic Ships director Martyn Heighton said the 31 March deadline could be avoided.
“The only reason this is a deadline is to do with the museum’s assets and liabilities,” he said. “There are ways that these can be covered in the short term – up to a year – during which period we must find a solution.”
Heighton, who is seeking a solution with Historic Scotland, was “certain” the ship would not be broken up. A delegation from Adelaide visited the ship at the end of January. Heighton said Adelaide’s bid included the £500,000 needed to transfer the ship to Australia.
Sunderland councillor Peter Maddison said he had £200,000 and engineering help pledged.