Written by Tom | 9th April 2020
On 15th April, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg en route to New York City, resulting in the death of over 1,500 passengers. The ensuing years saw the Titanic memorialised in the world. While the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the film Titanic are some of the more enduring outcomes, much has also been made of the few objects that survived the voyage. These items tell the story of those on board and have become sought after collector’s items for maritime history enthusiasts. With the help of curio and antiques expert, Nicholas Couts, we went to discover what drives collectors of these items and round up the most valuable Titanic pieces sold.
The sinking of the Titanic left an indelible mark on the public. This was supposed to be the unsinkable ship and forced a drastic review of what it meant to sail safely. Because of the nature of the ship’s demographics—which covered broad spectrums of society, from the hyper-wealthy to US-bound immigrants—the personal items and pieces aboard were coveted items even before they became pieces of maritime history. But it’s the sentiment attached, Couts says, that gives the objects that survived their real value.
“RMS Titanic is a part of our cultural identity and the objects that survived exemplify the very essence of the tragedy. Authentic Titanic pieces are incredibly rare. There is a tragic story of incredible sacrifice behind these items. Collectors pay huge prices to become a part of this story”.
Are there ethical implications to collecting these items? Couts says no. “Ethically speaking, the sale of Titanic memorabilia items is fine when sold by Titanic survivors and their descendants. These items have been sold at international auction houses for many years and these items were never removed from the wreckage”, he explains. “Since the wreckage was discovered in 1985 by Robert Ballad, RMS Titanic Inc has salvaged thousands of items from the debris field. Although there is now a treaty to protect the site, there is an ethical issue regarding the continued removal of items from the site”.
The Titanic’s appeal evidently lives on and the following salvaged items prove that people are more than willing to put a price on this part of maritime history.
The pocket watch belonged to a first class steward on the ship, named Edmund Stone. He held the master keys to the first class cabin. The watch stopped ticking at 2:16am – likely the exact moment that Edmund Stone landed in the icy Atlantic waters. When it was sold in 2008, it set the record as the most expensive Titanic object, at a €130,000 price tag. But that record has since been broken.
Not many pieces of clothing made it beyond the ship, but the full-length beaver fur coat belonging to first class stewardess Mabel Bennett did. She was only wearing a nightdress when the boat started to sink and was given the coat to protect her from the cold while she waited in the lifeboat to be saved. The coat was sold for €210,000 at auction, which was twice the estimated price. It was the only fully intact piece of clothing that survived from the Titanic that was put up for auction.
The ship’s plan was drawn up by the Naval Architect’s Department at White Star Line. It’s one of the most important pieces of Titanic memorabilia because it was used to investigate the sinking of the ship afterwards. Witnesses used it to identify points on the ship that hit the iceberg, which can be seen written on the map. The technical drawing is 9.2 metres long and sold for about €308,000 at auction.
In the 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, when the ship is starting to sink, the violin player begins to play and his band joins in. While this sounds like a typically melodramatic Hollywood scenario, it did in fact happen. Wallace Hartley began to play 'Nearer My God to Thee' at the critical last moments as the ship hit the iceberg. His violin survived (though he did not), but sadly it is no longer playable. The instrument was sold for €1.5 million at auction.
Hartley played the violin as the ship sunk – and perished in the process
Remember the necklace Rose wore in Titanic, that was later recovered? In the actual shipwreck, a treasure trove of jewellery was found by the expedition team; perhaps less surprising considering a large number of wealthy people were aboard the ship. A collection of diamond bracelets was put up for auction and sold for a staggering €1.7 million. Arguably the most stunning and touching piece was a diamond bracelet engraved with the name 'Amy'.
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