Titanic auction interest rises as 100th mark nears

By Steve Szkotak

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This Oct. 19, 2011 file photo provided by RMS Titanic, Inc., shows a bracelet from the RMS Titanic which was recovered from the ocean floor during an expedition to the site of the tragedyy. The piece along with 5,000 other artifacts will be auctioned as a single collection on April 11, 2012 100 years after the sinking of the ship.

RMS Titanic, Inc., Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — The April 1 auction of more than 5,000 Titanic artifacts a century after the luxury liner's sinking has stirred hundreds of interested calls, with some offering to add to the dazzling trove already plucked from the ocean floor.

Auctioneer Arlan Ettinger said his New York auction house, Guernsey's Auctioneers & Brokers, has heard from some descendants of the more than 700 survivors, including one offer he describes as morbid: papers found on the floating body of a passenger after the sinking.

"Their relative was found floating and, when the body was recovered, papers were removed — passports and other documents," he said. "That has stayed in the family's hands and they offered it to us."

The papers will not be included, but something much more poignant will be: a children's bracelet with the name Amy spelled out in diamonds. Only two Amys were listed among 2,228 passengers, of whom more than 1,500 died.

"It's very personal and very touching to see that," Ettinger said.

The auction will feature clothing, fine china, gold coins, silverware and "The Big Piece" — a 17-ton section of the Titanic's hull — plucked from the pitch-black depths 2 1/2 miles beneath the North Atlantic. It will be sold in one lot and the winning bid will be announced April 11. It was appraised in 2007 at $189 million.

Ettinger said Guernsey's has had its share of high-profile auctions — treasures from the estates of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy — but the collection from the world's most famous shipwreck tops them all. The Titanic sank April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg the night before during its maiden passage from Southampton, England, to New York.

"Where on this planet can you go and say the word 'Titanic' and not get some reaction?" he asked.

An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1985, about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada. The auction will be the first of Titanic artifacts collected from its final resting place, although items gathered from the ocean surface and from survivors have been sold in the past.

Premier Exhibitions Inc. has been displaying a fraction of the artifacts in traveling shows worldwide, including a permanent exhibit in Las Vegas. RMS Titanic Inc., a division of Premier that has overseen the artifacts for 18 years as the court-recognized salvor, said the public company decided to auction the collection in response to shareholders' wishes.

By order of a federal maritime judge in Virginia who has overseen the case for years, the items cannot be sold individually and they must go to a buyer who agrees to properly maintain the collection and make it available for occasional public viewing. The sale is also subject to court approval.

Ettinger said the court-ordered covenants governing the sale made this auction a unique challenge.

"Many, many people would covet the opportunity to own this or that thing, but not the whole shebang," he said.

Mindful of the strings attached, Ettinger will be reviewing bids through March to make sure interested parties can abide by restrictions.

"It does certainly restrict the number of potential buyers," he said.

Still, Ettinger said he has heard from museums, companies and individuals, none of whom he will name.

Besides the massive hull section, the collection includes an array of personal items, such as a mesh purse, eyeglasses and a waistcoat remarkably preserved in a leather satchel. A bronze cherub that once adorned the Grand Staircase is included, as are bottles and ship fittings, including the stand upon which the ship's wheel stood.

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