Stories from the Deep: Collecting Titanic Memorabilia
101 years have passed since the disaster that rocked the world: the sinking of the Unsinkable Ship, the RMS Titanic.
On 14 April 2012, the vast ocean liner hit an iceberg. Early in the morning of April 15, she was dragged down to the bottom of the sea, taking the lives of 1,496 passengers with her.
This was history’s greatest maritime tragedy. It has resonated down the years, remaining shocking and fascinating over a century on.
As with any massively significant historical event, Titanic memorabilia has its devotees. Interest in and value of collectibles relating to this event intensifies with time, and despite the rarity of original Titanic-related items, they continue to appear at auction.
Background to collecting
Titanic memorabilia makes for something of a miscellany. Items can include anything from pieces of rust from the ship’s hull, to Titanic disaster newspapers, right down to passenger’s possessions – and those themselves can be quite diverse.
It is the stories behind the items which make them so fascinating. The ship carried the richest man in the world, right down to some of the poorest emigrants. Each item of memorabilia is coloured by the class divide, the love story, the thrill of an escape, the tragedy of a drowned owner, the bravery of the musicians who selflessly surrendered their lives and played to the crowds as the ship went down. Even an obscure scrap of fabric will describe its origins, for example: ‘taken as a souvenir by a merchant Atlantic seaman prior to the ship’s departure’.
A great part of the appeal of Titanic collectibles is that they each possess an entirely unique back story, despite all having been present at the same disasterous event. Collectors are attracted just as much by ‘the human angle’ as they are by the historical significance. Therefore, traceable history is the most important thing when collecting Titanic memorabilia.
There have been a few deep sea expeditions that have pulled items up from the deep where the Titanic’s great bulk now lies rusting. It is illegal to retrieve items from the wreck and sell them on, and nothing from these missions has appeared at auction. They are often the subject of exhibition displays however, and Titanic aficionados can explore and view the items that were taken by the sea, and recovered decades later.
James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning movie Titanic had a big impact on interest in the disaster, and consequently in collectibles relating to it. Titanic movie memorabilia has its own collecting community, and some collections focus on both original disaster memorabilia, and items connected to the film.
Types of Titanic memorabilia
Looking at notable examples of items that have sold in the past is one way of categorising at least part of the medley of items that comprise Titanic memorabilia.
Keys used aboard the Titanic have appeared at auction more than once. In 2009, a rusty key belonging to Titanic Steward Edmund Stone, recovered from his frozen dead body when it was pulled from the water, was auctioned for £84,000. Stone was responsible for cabins on E deck, including those of artist Francis Millet, and Mabel Francatelli, the maid of noted aristocratic Titanic passengers Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon.
In 2007, the crow’s nest key that opened the binoculars store on the ship auctioned for £90,000. The key was not on board when the ship set sail from Southampton. It is thought that, had the lookouts been able to access the binoculars, the entire disaster might have been averted.
Documents & Letters
The record auction price for a Titanic artefact is held by a document, a 32ft longitudinal plan of the ship, drawn up by the Naval Architects Department of White Star Line and used during the inquiry into the disaster. IT sold for £220,000 at Henry Aldridge & Son in 2011.
Other documents have also done well at auction. An RMS Titanic luggage ticket, belonging to Gustaf Joel Johansson, was recovered from his drowned body. It sold for £59,000 at Henry Aldridge & Son in 2009.
Signals from the ship and replies from other vessels are particularly valuable. Eighty five messages sent and received by the Titanic between April 12 and April 15 were sold for £66,000 at Christie’s in 1992.
Any document with a link to the Titanic, and even documents relating to passengers and crew but that have no direct connection with the ship or the disaster, are valued by collectors.
Letters connected to a famous passenger, and particularly those on White Star Liner stationary inscribed ‘On board RMS Titanic’ are the most valuable. A letter with this heading from Titanic’s assistant surgeon Edward Simpson sold for $60,000 at RR Auction in 2012.
A letter written from the ship by doomed Titanic musician Wallace Hartley to his parents dated April 10, 1912 sold for $185,969 at RR Auction in 2012.
Menus from the meals served on the Titanic are extremely sought after. Surprisingly, quite a few were taken as mementos by passengers.
The most highly prized is the lavish first class menus for the last meals served on the ship on April 14, before she hit the iceberg. There are just 20 of these known to survive. A first class April 14 lunch menu sold for £76,000 at Henry Aldridge & Son in 2012. It survived travelling in the handbag of first class passenger Ruth Dodge as she escaped on a lifeboat.
A third class menu that survived in the third class handbag of Sarah Roth sold for $44,650 at Bonhams in 2005.
Menus from other dates are also desirable, such as the Titanic lunch menu dated April 2, 1912, sold for £28,000 at Sotheby’s in 2003.
Clothing and accoutrements
Passenger clothing and life jackets are the main two areas here, though jewellery, uniforms, badges and other accoutrements are also held in high regard by Titanic collectors. Those associated with famous passengers are, once again, the most valuable.
An example is the ‘escape kimono’, the infamous Lady Duff Gordon’s silk robe, worn as she escaped the disaster in a lifeboat. It sold for $75,205 at RR Auction in 2012.
A life preserver worn by Lady Duff Gordon’s maid Mabel Francatelli, autographed by her and other survivors in lifeboat number 1, sold for £60,000 at Christie’s in 2007.
Passenger and crew possessions
Anything owned by the passengers or crew of the Titanic, especially if it travelled with them on the voyage, is particularly desirable. From personal items like mirrors and combs to smoking paraphernalia and cigarettes, there is a great trade in these unlikely survivors.
The pocket watch belonging to steward Edmund Stone, also recovered from his dead body, had stopped at the exact time that he plunged into the freezing North Atlantic, capturing 2:16am. It sold for £94,000 at Henry Aldridge & Son in 2008.
Henry Aldridge will also be offering musician Wallace Hartley’s violin at their next auction this April 28, proven by extensive forensic testing and experts to be the very instrument that he took with him into the ocean when he gallantly led the band to play on as the ship went down.
There is a great community that collect Titanic memorial postcards, produced after the disaster. Some people considered the event some form of divine retribution, and some postcards carry a religious theme. An additional angle of interest is the fakery of images of the ship. There were hardly any photographs of the Titanic, and thus many of those reproduced on the postcards are not of the ship at all but her sister ship Olympia.
Other memorial items include candy boxes, commemorative plates, and the unusual Stieff company black Titanic mourning bears. One of these morbid toys sold for £91,750 at Christie’s in 2000.
The other typical items of post-disaster Titanic memorabilia are the newspapers that reported the disaster at the time. These can fetch into the hundreds, and are fascinating mementos of the impact the disaster had across the world.
- White Star Line crockery used on the ship. A White Star Liner dessert plate used on the ship sold for $20,000 at Hantman’s in 2004.
- Furniture, decorative objects and material from curtains, upholstery, carpet, bed linen, anything really. From a tiny scrap up to a whole item. An original deck chair from the Titanic sold for $59,000 at RR Auction in 2012.
- Pieces of rope, wood, even rusty metal from the ship itself. A wooden slat from the grand staircase sold for $7,500 at RR Auction in 2012. One online dealer is selling a thread from a rope that tethered the Titanic for £25, proving that not all Titanic memorabilia has to cost hundreds of thousands.
- Photographs of the ship, passengers, rescue mission etc. A lot of twenty photographs taken from rescue ship RMS Carpathia the morning after the disaster sold for $13,000 at Heritage Auctions in 2012. A photograph of the iceberg, thought to be the one that sank the Titanic, sold at RR Auction for $25,200 in 2012.
You may have noticed one auction house name coming up again and again throughout this article. Experts and Titanic specialist auction house Henry Aldridge & Son in Devizes, UK, have been described as the ‘leading source of high end ocean liner collectibles in the world’. They hold the world record for a Titanic artefact at auction, as well as many of the other top sales of Titanic memorabilia. They have an auction of Titanic memorabilia coming up on April 28. View the complete catalogue here.
In the US, RR Auction hold occasional sales of Titanic memorabilia. They held one for the Titanic Centenary in April 2012, but their most recent Titanic auction was held on December 16, 2012. View the complete catalogue here.
Big auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams also offer items from time to time, as well as the occasional provincial auction house.
There are numerous online dealers who sell Titanic memorabilia. Be sure they are reputable, and that each item comes with impeccable provenance. dissertationediting.org