Titanic violin sells for record $1.78 million

The violin believed to be the one played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as Titanic sank the night of April 14th, 1912, has sold at auction for a record £900,000 ($1,454,000) hammer price, £1.1 million ($1,778,000) including buyer’s premium and taxes. The previous record price for Titanic memorabilia was just set in May of 2011 when the 33-foot-long plan of the ship made for the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster sold for £220,000 ($363,000).

The buyer is a British collector of Titanic artifacts who has of course chosen to remain anonymous. It took less than two minutes for the bids to go from £50 — an artificially low opening point that was a gift from auctioneer Alan Aldridge to two of his friends who just wanted to get a bid in — to £100,000. Within 10 minutes the final two buyers standing, both anonymous phone bidders, had battled it out to the rousing £900,000 finale.

There was a great deal of interest in this piece, not all of it approving. The circumstances of its survival and rediscovery read more like fiction than reality, so much so that an elaborate hoax seems at least as possible as it being Hartley’s violin.

It was found in a leather luggage case monogrammed “W. H. H.” (Wallace Henry Hartley) which also held a silver cigarette case, a signet ring and a letter written by the violin teacher who had given the objects to the current owner’s mother. On the tail piece of the violin is a silver plate inscribed “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.” Wallace Hartley’s fiancé Maria Robinson gave him a violin when they got engaged in 1910, and he brought it on the Titanic.

The violin teacher’s letter told the remarkable story that Maria Robinson’s sister Margaret had given the violin to the local Salvation Army after Maria’s death in 1939. Margaret told the Bridlington Salvation Army leader, Major Renwick, about the instrument’s history and Renwick gave it to one of their members who was a violin teacher. That teacher gave it to one of his students and that years later student’s son found in the attic.

The owner took the violin to auction house Henry Aldridge & Son to have it authenticated in 2006. That was no easy task. The very notion that the violin could have survived intact strapped to the chest of the dead musician while his body floated in the frigid north Atlantic for 10 days is a fanciful one, to put it mildly. Aldridge spent seven years analyzing the instrument, enlisting experts to determine if it was a forgery, a pastiche of period elements like a 1910 silver plate cobbled together and dunked in sea water to make it seem legit.

Henry Aldridge & Son felt they’d sufficiently established its authenticity to announce the find in March of this year. In May, one more test was performed: a CT scan at BMI Ridgeway Hospital in Wiltshire.

Astrid Little, Imaging Manager at the Wroughton hospital explains why a CT scan helped in the authentication process: “A 3D image of the violin was created from the CT scan, meaning the violin could be examined from the inside. The scan revealed that the original wood was cracked and showed signs of possible restoration. The fine detail of the scan meant the auctioneers could examine the construction, interior and the glue holding the instrument together.”

After it was released from the hospital, the violin went on tour, stopping at two Titanic museums in the United States, Branson and Pigeon Forge, where 315,000 people viewed it over the course of three months. After that, it went back across the ocean to the Titanic Belfast, the exceptional museum overlooking historic slipways where Titanic and Olympic were built.

There are still many doubts as to how any wooden instrument could have survived intact the sinking of the Titanic and subsequent week and a half in the water. Still, somebody was willing to bet $1.78 million on the chance of it being the real deal.

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8 Comments »

Comment by Hels
2013-10-20 07:29:49

I heard this very discussion on the radio this morning, before the auction started. Very similar to what you were saying – how could the violin have survived in the freezing water and if it couldn’t, would specialist collectors pay a fortune etc etc?

It seems as if the magic of the last moments, before the Titanic actually tipped over and sank, was the most emotional and iconic part of the entire trip. The young band members, knowing they were about to die, played on anyhow. They obeyed orders.

 
Comment by Benjamin McGregor
2013-10-20 19:05:14

Looking like that after 10 days in salt water is not particularly shocking for treated wood, provided it survived intact during the actual sinking (also not impossible.) I don’t know what specifically violins are treated/finished with, but it certainly must be designed not to endure erosion from salty water, much like the sweat from a musicians hands. There are deck chairs and a piece of the oak staircase from Titanic, in the maritime museum of the Atlantic, and they’re not much worse for wear than this violin. It’s also possible that the thing has been stripped and refinished in the 100 years since.

The thing that does give me pause is, if it was recovered on his body by the crew sent to recover bodies, there would be a record of that. There were records of every single physical feature and personal effect found on every body, and a violin strapped to the, at the time, world-famous deceased band leader would not have slipped by the accounting process. Those records are not mentioned at all, here.

ETA: Turns out he was indeed found “fully dressed with his music case strapped to his body.” The violin was in a case, which certainly would have protected it from being shattered by the force of the sinking, and may’ve even sealed out the water (especially considering his body was floating.) Weird that this was not mentioned in the articles.

Comment by livius drusus
2013-10-20 19:23:10

It wasn’t a violin case strapped to his body, though. It was the valise you see in the picture. That’s seems to me a much less protective enclosure than a traditional hard-sided violin case.

 
 
Comment by nightsmusic
2013-10-20 21:16:30

I tend to think that it is in fact the ‘real thing’ only because I saw so many artifacts when I went through twice at the exhibit at Greenfield Village. Even papers that should have disintegrated and clothing that should have all but fallen to pieces were remarkably intact thanks to the ages old tanning process used at the time on the leather that made up the valises and other baggage. It’s only through that tanning process that those things survived at all.

That said, as long as Hartley simply ‘slipped’ into the ocean without banging into anything that could have damaged the violin, it’s absolutely possible that it’s the real thing.

Fascinating.

 
Comment by rita Roberts
2013-10-21 11:16:46

Well ! I certainly hope its the real thing for the buyers sake.

 
Comment by T.D.
2013-10-22 13:09:48

It’s hard to believe all of the artifacts [gold ring, cigarette case, scissors, etc...] alleged to belong to Wallace Hartley and later found [2006?] in the leather bag would have stayed together all these years. The “supporting documents” come across as suspect too. It seems the hoaxer went too far over-board [pardon the pun] in creating a ‘back story’ for this grand deception.

 
Comment by Anonymous
2013-12-31 05:02:29

As is known to us all, there is no doubt that the Titanic film is a legendary film. So, let alone that magic violin. Nowadays, more and more Titanic fans are buying their favourite cosplay costumes in the on-line stores, such as Moviescostume, Fandomsky and other stores to play as their most loved characters in the cosplay shows. That is really cool and impressive. So, have you had an idea of doing something like that? Haha.

 
Comment by Meg
2014-02-20 09:09:53

But as the case is leather and substantial by the look of it, then it probably would afford great protection against sea water and impact, probably more so than an oilcloth covered wooden violin case?

 
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