We all know it was the unsinkable ship, and that it sank on its maiden voyage in the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912. There were 2228 people on board, some famous and others whose notoriety has been awarded them by happenstance, including Millvina Dean, who was just a two-month-old infant at the time of the tragedy. And it’s items directly related to the passengers that are bringing the highest prices at auction.
Ms Dean, who died in 2009 at the age of 98, auctioned some of her Titanic memorabilia in 2008 to help pay her nursing home fees. A canvas mailbag and a collection of Titanic-related photographs brought $8600, even though many of the pictures were recent. “It’s the association,” said auctioneer Andrew Aldridge. “Because these things have been owned by her, they become valuable.” Millvina’s mother survived the disaster, but her father Bertram was among the victims. She didn’t know she was a Titanic survivor until her mother told her at the age of eight.
In 2008, at a UK sale of Titanic memorabilia, the Crow’s Nest Key, sold with a postcard written onboard by First Second Officer David Blair on April 4, 1912, sold for a whopping $156,000. At the same sale, a collection featuring a pocket watch, a key, a penknife and other ship paraphernalia sold for an amazing $424,000. “It’s the human angle,” said auctioneer Aldridge, who has run a number of Titanic sales in recent years. “You had over 2,200 men, women and children on that ship, from John Jacob Astor, the richest person in the world at the time, to a poor Scandinavian family emigrating to the States to start a new life. There were 2,200 stories."
Traceable history is all-important in the world of Titanic memorabilia. For example, in 2007 a life vest that had been worn by the secretary to the wife of Cosmo Dugg-Gordon sold at auction in the UK for $129,000. Part of the attraction was the story attached to the vest: that the secretary had bribed crew members not to return the half-filled lifeboat to the sinking ship. By contrast, another life vest sold at auction in the United States two year later brought $79,000. That one had been found on the beaches of Nova Scotia by a member of a recovery party, but had no traceable history.
In February 2010, a document relating to Captain Edward Smith - who was Captain of the RMS Titanic – sold for a double-estimate $2400. Not a massive amount, but it would have been basically worthless without the Titanic connection. Other 2010 prices include $900 paid for a Titanic Survivors Fund medallion, and $950 for an untransmitted Titanic Disaster Survivor’s message from the SS Carpathia (the same ship that rescued Millvina Dean and her mother).
The idea of a luxury liner the size of the Titanic had first been conceived in 1907, but it was another two years before construction began in Ireland. The ship was part of the Olympic class of vessels belonging to the White Star Line (whose crockery is also becoming quite collectable), and was designed to be the largest ship in the world. Its construction took three years and cost $7.5 million, a massive amount at the time.
Sixteen compartments were designed to be watertight, but this was of no use whatsoever when the Titanic hit a massive iceberg and many of its three million rivets simply popped off. According to reports from surviving crew members, the ship’s captain may well have been ordered to attempt to break a speed record in the Trans-Atlantic crossing. It seems certain that for whatever reason, the vessel was travelling too fast for the ice floe conditions – and there were too few lifeboats for the number of passengers. This was because it was felt that if the 32 lifeboats the ship was designed to carry were put on the deck it would look too cluttered, so the number was reduced to 20 – enough for 1178 people. When these lifeboats come up for sale at auction – as they do every now and then – they sell for anywhere between $65,000 and $90,000 - the same price paid for a dinner menu from the last meal served on the ship, of which only 20 are known to exist. (In case you’re curious, the last dinner included lamb with mint sauce, sirloin of beef and Waldorf pudding). A menu from earlier in the voyage sold for $25,000.
As the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches there are bound to be many items of memorabilia emerging from the woodwork, and prices will continue to rise. The ship itself may have sunk, but its values are on the up.
This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit www.acpp.com.au.