The Washington Post

Titanic violin fetches record price at auction

This undated handout image from auction house Henry Aldridge and Son shows a violin believed to be the one played by Titanic bandmaster Wallace Hartley. (AP)

It is one of the most famous instruments in the world, a wooden symbol of selflessness, courage and resolve.

And on Saturday, the violin reportedly played on the deck of the Titanic while the doomed liner tilted and slowly sank into the icy North Atlantic a century ago sold for $1.45 million — more than twice the amount anticipated.

Never mind that the violin is unplayable. The battered instrument set a world record for a single item of Titanic memorabilia, said Henry Aldridge & Son, the auction house in southwestern England that sold the violin and specializes in Titanic artifacts.

“In my 20 years as an auctioneer, I can honestly say I don’t think any article has made people show as much emotion as this one,” said the auction house’s Andrew Aldridge. “People pick it up and start crying.”

The buyer, who paid almost $1.7 million after taxes and the commission were included, was identified only as a “British collector of Titanic items.”

The maple and spruce violin belonged to 33-year-old Wallace Henry Hartley, the bandleader who, along with seven other musicians, valiantly played on in an attempt to maintain calm as increasingly panicked passengers climbed into lifeboats — an act of heroic selflessness famously depicted in James Cameron’s 1997 hit film “Titanic.”

The musicians were among the 1,517 people who died after the vessel struck an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912.

“They played until the bitter end, and it was an incredibly brave act,” Aldridge said. “It represents everything good about people — that’s the only explanation I can come up for why it causes so much emotion.”

The auction house spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars investigating the violin’s authenticity, bringing in scientists, forensic experts and historians to carry out the necessary detective work.

Hartley’s body was found about 10 days after the ship sank, but the violin was not listed among the inventory of items found with it.

Yet a string of reasons persuaded the auction house that the violin found in 2006 in an attic in northern England was indeed genuine. For instance, the violin has a silver plate screwed onto the base with the engraving: “For Wallace, on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.”

Maria Robinson, Wallace’s fiancee, wrote in her diary that the violin had been saved and returned to her. She never married, and after she died in 1939, her sister donated the violin to a local Salvation Army branch, where it was passed to one of its members, a violin teacher. The teacher, in turn, gave the violin to a student, Eve, the last owner’s mother.

The violin was found with a brown leather case bearing the initials W.H.H. and containing other items, such as water-stained sheet music of songs known to have been played on the ship and personal effects of Hartley’s, including a silver cigarette case and a signet ring.

In March, the auction house said it was confident the violin was genuine. The cracks, the corrosion, the water stains, the make and style of the instrument, the forensic results, the letters, the corroborating stories, the results of a hospital CT scan — everything, they said, was consistent with the violin that belonged to Hartley and that he played on that fateful day in 1912.

The violin was displayed in the United States this year at Titanic museums in Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., drawing hundreds of thousands of people. It was also exhibited in Belfast, where the Titanic was built, and Dewsbury, England, where Hartley lived.

Previously, the priciest Titanic artifact sold, Aldridge said, was a 32-foot-long schematic plan of the ship used in Britain’s official inquiry into the tragedy, which he said fetched $356,000.

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.

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