RICHMOND, Va. — Items as small as a hairpin and as big as a chunk of the Titanic's hull are among 5,000 artifacts from the world's most famous shipwreck that are to be auctioned in April, close to the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
Nearly a century after the April 15, 1912, sinking of the ocean liner that hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, a New York City auction is being readied by Guernsey's Auctioneers & Brokers.
That auction house has garnered headlines in the past by selling off such historical curiosities as prized Beatles photos, famous jewels of the late Princess Diana, beloved Jerry Garcia guitars and a police motorcycle used in the Texas motorcade when John F. Kennedy was slain. But nothing as titanic as the so-called Titanic collection.
On April 11, all of the salvaged items are to be sold as one lot in what Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger describes as the most significant auction ever handled by that house.
"Who on this planet doesn't know the story of the Titanic and isn't fascinated by it?" he asked. "Could Hollywood have scripted a more tragic or goose-bump-raising story than what actually happened on that ship?"
"It is as poignant to my 12-year-old son as it is to me and generations before me. There's no end to the fascination about it."
The auction will be conducted 100 years plus a day after the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, embarking on the ill-fated maiden voyage that had New York as its destination.
The collection was appraised in 2007 at $189 million, including some intellectual property alongside the myriad items plucked by remote controlled probes from the pitch-black depths, some 2 and ½ miles below the ocean's surface.
Those artifacts include the massive hull section called "The Big Piece" as well as personal belongings of passengers and crew, such as a mesh purse and eyeglasses. A bronze cherub that once adorned the Grand Staircase is also among the collection, as are fine china, table settings, bottles and ship fittings — even the stand upon which the ship's wheel stood.
By court order, the items cannot be sold individually and must go to a buyer who agrees to properly maintain the collection and make it available for occasional public viewing. The sale is subject to court approval.
Ettinger and officials with RMS Titanic Inc., which salvaged the artifacts from the Titanic wreck, spoke to The Associated Press in advance of a media preview Thursday in New York. The AP first reported on the auction Dec. 29, based on financial filings by RMS Titanic.
The planned sale also could include a trove of archaeological data and visuals of the wreck, as well as the only detailed map of the vast ocean floor where all the artifacts were scattered after the Titanic's sinking.
The Titanic's sinking claimed the lives of more than 1,500 of the 2,228 passengers and crew. An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1985, about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada.
The research materials could be a road map to future salvage expeditions because of the new information they provide on the wreck site.
"We are opening the door of opportunity for the future of the Titanic," said Brian Wainger, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., of which RMS Titanic is a division.
But the clock is ticking on thousands of additional artifacts embedded in a 3-by-5-mile section of ocean floor around the wreck, an area subject to a century of extreme ocean conditions such as cold temperatures and treacherous currents.
"I think it's fair to say that we have only touched the surface," Wainger said.
The deteriorating hulk of the Titanic is off limits to salvage.
The auction is subject to approval by a federal judge in Virginia whose jurisdiction for years has given oversight to legal issues governing the salvage of the Titanic. The Titanic treasures were amassed during seven risky and expensive trips to the wreck.
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, who has overseen the case from her Norfolk courtroom, has called the Titanic an "international treasure." She has approved covenants and conditions that the company previously worked out with the federal government, including a prohibition against selling the collection piecemeal.
The court conditions also require subsequent owners to make the artifacts available "to present and future generations for public display and exhibition, historical review, scientific and scholarly research, and educational purposes."
Wainger and Ettinger declined to speculate on who might bid on the collection.
"You hate to be in the position of being a fortune teller or clairvoyant," Ettinger said. "I, for one, would be very surprised if there wasn't international interest."
Wainger said, "Any individual can fall in love with any of the different artifacts because so many of them are personal. When you read the personal stories you recognize the tragedy."
Premier Exhibitions has been displaying the Titanic artifacts in exhibitions worldwide. The items were recovered from the shipwreck in expeditions in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004.
RMS Titanic, which has overseen the artifacts for 18 years, said the public company decided to auction the collection in response to shareholders' wishes that the "company go out and make money."
"It's better to be in the hands of a private institution that doesn't have the same short-term profit obligations that a public company has," he said.
In 2010, RMS Titanic collaborated with some of the world's leading experts in the most technologically advanced expedition to the Titanic, undertaking the first comprehensive mapping survey of the vessel with 3-D imagery from bow to stern.
The most striking images involved the 3-D tour of the Titanic's stern, which lies 2,000 feet from the bow.
A camera in a remote-controlled submersible vehicle skimmed over the stern, seemingly transporting viewers through scenes of jagged rusticles sprouting from the deck, a length of chain, the captain's bathtub, and wooden elements that scientists had previously believed had disappeared in the harsh, deep ocean environment.
The expedition fully mapped the wreck site, documenting the entire debris field for the first time.
"Titanic" director James Cameron also has led teams to the wreck to record the bow and the stern.
The Titanic exhibit is among several operated by Premier Exhibitions, which bills itself as "a major provider of museum-quality touring exhibitions." Its offerings have included sports memorabilia, a traveling Star Trek homage and "Bodies," an anatomy exhibit featuring preserved human cadavers.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .
Online: Guernsey's: http://www.guernseys.com/
Premier Exhibitions Inc.: http://www.prxi.com/prxi.html