LONDON – The violin believed to have belonged to the bandleader on the Titanic fetched $1.44 million at auction Saturday, becoming far and away the most expensive piece of memorabilia associated with the ocean liner ever to be sold.
The British auction house Henry Aldridge & Son had expected the battered-looking instrument to sell for a third of that amount. But the legend surrounding the fiddle, its embodiment of the heroic self-sacrifice of a band that famously kept playing as the ill-fated ship met its watery doom, boosted bidding to stratospheric levels.
The winning offer of 900,000 pounds, or $1.44 million, is more than four times the record amount paid two years ago for a 32-foot-long schematic drawing of the Titanic that was used in the official investigation of its sinking.
The contest for the violin came down to two bidders vying furiously by telephone, with excited members of the audience bursting into applause when the auctioneer’s hammer struck. After the buyer’s premium is factored in, the final cost will come to $1.76 million.
“It was an exceptional price for an exceptional item,” said Andrew Aldridge, a surveyor at the auction house.
The story of the band playing on has become an indelible trope of the Titanic, a favorite image of filmmakers and fans alike. Though the band’s reputed choice of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the ship sank is likely an invention, survivors recounted that the musicians continued to perform during the vessel’s final minutes as panic-stricken passengers fled for their lives.
Wallace Hartley was the band’s young leader. His violin was a gift from his fiancée, Maria Robinson, and bore the inscription “For Wallace, on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.”
When Hartley’s body was pulled from the Atlantic several days after the Titanic sank in April 1912, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, the leather valise he used to carry the violin was still strapped to him. The other band members also perished.
The auction house spent several years having the violin authenticated, subjecting it to a battery of examinations by forensic experts who noted the saltwater corrosion and other indicators of the instrument’s incredible history. After being declared the genuine article, it was put on display during most of this summer in the United States.
Although the violin generated worldwide interest, Aldridge said that both the seller and the buyer are British and have asked to remain anonymous.