April 12, 2012 --Ghostly relics of the sunken RMS Titanic threaten to sink investors' bank accounts just in time for the centennial of the passenger liner's tragic maiden voyage, which ended in a piercing collision with an iceberg on April 15, 1912.
A 17-ton chunk of the ship's fragmented hull, recovered in 1998 and shown here on display at the Luxor in Las Vegas, is the largest of nearly 6,000 artifacts now up for grabs at two U.S. auction houses. Also for sale are a diamond bracelet spelling out the name "Amy," a man's bowler hat, White Start Line dishware, and a postcard a young man wrote to his parents before the ship went down.
A secret bidding war is currently underway for a singular collection of more than 5,000 of these objects, which constitute the first and only auction of artifacts hauled up from the North Atlantic seabed since the wreck's discovery in 1985.
A U.S. court order mandates this monumental Edwardian treasure trove—currently the property of the salvage company RMS Titanic, Inc.—be sold as a single lot to an individual buyer. The prospective new owner must agree to display and restore the collection, valued at $189 million.
Average history buffs may have a better shot at acquiring one of 180 other Titanic-related items in a second, online auction that goes live April 19. The crew of a Canadian vessel dispatched to the wreck site two days after the Titanic sank recovered many of these objects, including a wooden deck chair that an ill-fated passenger may have clung to before succumbing to the icy water.
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Grave or Memorial?
Salvagers discovered this 17-ton section of Titanic's hull in 1994 and raised it in 1998. Dubbed the "Big Piece," it is the largest object ever recovered from the wreck site.
From the starboard side of the ship, this fragment contains portholes from C and D decks. The large portholes looked into cabins C 79 and C 81, and the smaller ports between them looked into the attached private bathrooms.
Over the years, some people have complained that dismantling the wreckage is akin to robbing the graves of the 1,500 Titanic passengers who died at sea. Representatives of RMS Titantic, Inc., salvo-in-possession of the ship and its wreck site, see things differently:
"Many of the artifacts we've brought up from the site would have disintegrated and been lost forever had this company not risked life and limb, and spent millions of dollars and countless hours to raise and rehabilitate them using cutting-edge conservation techniques," chairman of Premier Exhibitions and RMS Titanic Inc., Mark Sellers, said in announcing the current sale earlier this year. "After all of these efforts, we have determined that the time has come for us to transfer ownership of this collection to a steward who is able to continue our efforts and will preserve and honor her legacy."
Honoring Her Legacy
One of the wealthy women among Titanic's first-class passengers may have left this 26-gem, gold-and-silver bracelet behind. There were at least two passengers named Amy on board, as well as an Amanda and an Amelia.
Recently, a man offered $100,000 for the bracelet alone, convinced that it had belonged to his great-grandmother, Amy, but the house handling the auction for RMS Titanic, Inc., had to turn him down because of a law forbidding the sale of individual items salvaged from the wreck site.
This iconic bronze cherub, recovered in 1987, probably lost its left foot as salvagers ripped it from the post it adorned along Titanic’s Grand Staircase. Each level of the staircase was decorated with inlaid wood and gilded ornaments such as this cherub, which graced one of the upper landings where children of first-class passengers played as their parents visited.
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The elegance of Grand Staircase, which descended through six decks and was topped by a dome of iron and glass, is evident in this modern replica.
The original Grand Staircase was a favorite meeting place for Titanic's first-class passengers, who would meet there before a visit to the Turkish Baths, say, or after dinner.
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Recovered from inside a leather bag in 1987, this bill accrued little damage during its 75-year visit to the bottom of the North Atlantic. In 1912 both private banks and the U.S. federal government were still issuing paper money.
Banks in various cities printed "promissory notes" in proportion to the national debt they underwrote. This $1 U.S. Silver Certificate measures over seven inches in length; a current U.S. $1 bill is about six inches.
During Edwardian times, when Titanic sailed, the hard, felt bowler hat was compulsory wear for men with any claim to status. Indeed, clothes denoted status as plainly as any military uniform. To appear in public without a hat meant being seen as wretchedly poor, just plain eccentric or even faintly obscene.
This bowler hat, recovered from wreck site in 1993, held up surprisingly well considering it was found without the protection of a leather bag or trunk.
Heavy and serviceable, the third-class dishware was marked with the White Star Line's logo to prevent theft.
Like all china aboard, the name Titanic never appeared, allowing its use on other White Star Line ships. It is generally thought that this pattern of china was also used for crew's service.
The intricate handmade cut design of this crystal dish, discovered in 2000, indicates that it was probably used in first class.
Up for Grabs
During the sinking, Titanic's pursers stuffed handbags like this one full of the jewelry and money that passengers had entrusted to the safe deposit boxes.
Although most of these bags went down with the ship, the pursers probably planned to load these valuables into the lifeboats and return them to passengers in New York.
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