Titanic Artifacts Set for Auction Block This Week
for National Geographic News
|June 7, 2004|
Watch the TV premiere of Return to Titanic Monday, June 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on the National Geographic Channel.
The ill-fated luxury liner R.M.S. Titanic never made it to New York. But on Thursday the largest ever selection of the ship's artifacts and memorabilia will go on the auction block the city's South Street Seaport Museum, just steps from the New York Titanic memorial.
The event, hosted by New York auction house Guernsey's, will sell items from other famous ocean, such as the Normandie, the Olympic, the Andrea Doria, and the Lusitania. But there can be no doubt of the main attraction.
"It's far and away the biggest assemblage of Titanic material ever to come to sale," said Arlan Ettinger, President of Guernsey's.
The auction's lots range from the quirky to the awe inspiring to the slightly macabre.
cork life jacket and liner said to have been removed from a doomed passenger (estimated auction sale price: U.S. $30,000 to $40,000);
a Titanic plaque from lifeboat number 2 (estimated auction sale price: $75,000 to $100,000); and
a recovered deck chair.
Gary Robinson, one of the event's top consigners, said he has several lots of special interest.
"I think in terms of an almost visceral impact on people when they see it, I'd mention a 19-inch [48-centimeter] section of carved English oak that made up part of the grand staircase," Robinson said.
"When the ship broke in two, that wood shot out onto the ocean. Because it floats, obviously, some was picked up on the body recovery vessel [the Minia]," Robinson said. "Lots of what's called Titanic wreck wood must be looked at with a pound of salt. But this hand-carved pattern identifies it to that particular area on the ship."
Also on the block is a one-of-a-kind souvenir pin that was sold in Titanic's barbershop. "There were no gift shops onboard in those days," Robinson said. "This one was purchased by a crew member who put it on his jacket and eventually went into a lifeboat. When he returned to Southampton he gave it to the port superintendent as a gift. That fellow's descendents brought it to auction in England."
Bidders can also choose from five original menus (no more than 25 are believed to exist); collectible White Star Line china; rare photographs; signatures and documents; marconigrams (messanges transmitted by radiotelegraphy); original artwork; and even costumes and props from Titanic, the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster directed by James Cameron.
Illegal Salvage Not for Sale
The R.M.S. Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. More than 1,500 people drowned with the ship, and the tragedy has reverberated through the years in the form of countless films and books.
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard was the first to locate the resting place of the legendary vessel in 1985. Ballard found the ship off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland beneath 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) of water.
Ballard has long argued that shipwrecks should be left undisturbed to preserve history for future generations. (The explorer is currently revisiting the Titanic to document the wreck's destruction.)
But since Titanic's discovery, subsequent expeditions have salvaged over 6,000 artifacts from the wreck. Various tour companies have visited the site, and there have even been reports of private submarines landing on the sunken ship's deck.
Consigners and Guernsey's officials say salvaged items are off-limits from Thursday's auction.
"Salvaged artifacts are not legal for collectors to own and certainly not legal to sell," Robinson said.
"We own things that were on the ship and taken off before the voyage, or taken off by survivors or even on victims' bodies," he said. "There are some personal effects that were taken off by morticians and embalmers in Halifax and put in numbered bags and sent back to families."
Collectors are said to have acquired many of their best pieces by locating families of the survivors and victims of the disaster.
Rich Romano, a Titanic artifact and memorabilia collector from Secaucus, New Jersey, is one of the auction's three main consigners. Romano said he began his collection by gathering the autographs of survivors and victims as a hobby. "I've been doing this, for Titanic and other liners, for about 18 years," Romano said, noting interest in Titanic has waxed and waned during that time.
"I've seen the quiet times, and obviously the movie brought everything back to the forefront," he said. "In the 1980s and 1990s a lot of the survivors jumped on the bandwagon and signed postcards at conventions and so on."
But interest in the luxury liner in recent years has pushed prices for memorabilia and artifacts steadily upward.
The family sources that have supplied the collectibles market once helped Edward S. Kamuda, president and founder of the Titanic Historical Society, create the society's museum in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts.
"Most of the stuff that we have in our collection was donated by survivors," Kamuda said. "It started when a survivor died and all of his things ended up in the city dump because he had no family and there was no interest in the 1960s. We thought we'd create a museum where [memorabilia] could be preserved for future generations."
But Kamuda said surging interest in the legendary liner has been a mixed blessing for his organization. Titanic buzz has promoted the society's growth. But it has also made it difficult for the museum to add its collection.
"People used to donate material to our society. But now that they can get a good price, you don't see that much any more," Kamuda said. "That's sad because some of these things will go into a collector's safe and not be seen publicly for years."
Kamuda believes that many auction buyers will be motivated less by interest in the events of April 1912 than those of April 2012.
"Many people are buying these things and looking to the hundredth anniversary to make a profit," Kamuda said. "Some are speculators rather than Titanic enthusiasts."
Guernsey president Ettinger says that while more exciting items do carry large price tags, many enthusiasts who want a part of the Titanic story will be able to find something.
"It's really for all strata, it's not just an elitist thing," he said. "There are items that might be over a hundred thousand dollars, but many others that are only worth hundreds."
Romano, the New Jersey collector, says he believes the auction will help enhance the infamous ship's legacy. "It gives [enthusiasts] a chance to see or to own some of those items and to continue the Titanic's story. It really has no end."
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