The violin that was apparently played to calm passengers on the Titanic as it sank was sold for amost $1.7 million in just 10 minutes at auction in Wiltshire.
The instrument, which is cracked, water stained and only has two strings, is said to have belonged to Wallace Hartley, whose band continued to play – most famously, the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” – as the ship filled with water.
“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.”
It had taken seven years for the Devizes auction house, Henry Aldridge & Son, to authenticate the instrument. Several experts were used, including forensic scientists who said the wood still contained salt deposits from the sea water, reports the BBC News.
They said Hartley had strapped it to his chest in a leather bag and it had been returned to his fiance, Maria Robinson, before being passed on to The Salvation Army. From there it was given to a violin teacher, who in turn gave it to the seller’s mother, herself an amateur musician.
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.
“Mr. Hartley and the band were very brave people … standing by their posts to the bitter end,” auctioneer Andrew Aldridge said ahead of the sale.
Whatever its initial fate, a transcript of a telegram dated July 19, 1912 in the diary of Miss Robinson, to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia, reveals it was eventually eturned to her.
She states: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.”
The violin itself is German, probably Berlin or Dresden school, circa 1880, bearing a later label Giovan Paolo Maggini Brescia. It is a copy of a Maggini with double purfled back and front, the two piece back of medium curl descending from the joint.
The original varnish, now largely absent, is of a dark brown colour with a later golden brown covering. Its eventful life is reflected in the condition with signs of restoration and large cracks on the body of the instrument.
The tail plate fitted to the violin bears a silver hallmark Chester, 1910 and is engraved “For Wallace on the occasion of our Engagement from Maria”. It was given to Dewsbury resident Wallace Hartley as a gift from his fiancée Maria Robinson on the event of their engagement, according to the Henry Aldridge & Son website.
The auction house said it had attracted interest from collectors all over the world and added that more than 315,000 people viewed it during a three-month exhibition in the United States.
“It’s a world record for a Titanic artifact,” said Peter Boyd-Smith, a Titanic memorabilia collector at the auction, hosted by Henry Aldridge and Son in the western England town of Devizes.
“The only other items that are probably worth that kind of money are the items salvaged from RMS Titanic if they are ever put up for sale and those are in the exhibitions that go around America and Europe.