The violin played by the bandmaster of the Titanic to calm passengers as it sank sold at auction for $1.45 million on Saturday, a world record fee for memorabilia from the doomed liner. The instrument belonging to Wallace Hartley was found strapped to his body after he drowned with his seven bandmates and some 1,500 others on board the supposedly unsinkable ship in 1912.
It was sold to a British collector after a feverish 10-minute battle between telephone bidders at Titanic specialist auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Son in Devizes, southwest England.
The instrument carries an inscription from the 33-year-old’s fiancee Maria Robinson to mark their engagement and was sold with its leather luggage case, initialled W.H.H, in which it was found.
For decades the violin was believed lost but it was found in the attic of a house in northwest England in 2006, prompting a debate about its authenticity, which experts only recently resolved.
“We’re absolutely overjoyed,” Christine Aldridge, a spokeswoman for the auction house, said.
“It was sold to a UK collector who was bidding by telephone. The whole sale only took about 10 minutes.”
She said the final price including premiums paid to the auction house was £1,050,030.
Hartley’s band played the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to try to calm passengers while they climbed into lifeboats as the Titanic sank beneath the icy waves in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg.
Hartley and his seven fellow band members all died after choosing to play on.
Bidding started at just £50 for the violin, with principal auctioneer Alan Aldridge joking that he was setting the price so low so that two of his friends could bid.
But within a few minutes it had passed the previous world record of £220,000 for a Titanic piece as competition between four telephone bidders hotted up.
There were gasps from the 200 people at the auction house as the price reached £350,000 and then a tense silence as the battle for the instrument narrowed to two telephone bidders.
It had a reserve price of £200,000 to £300,000.
‘He knew there would be no lifeboats’
Andrew Aldridge, a valuer with the auctioneer, said he hoped the violin would stay in Britain and go on exhibition.
“It symbolises love, with a young man strapping it to his body because it was an engagement present from his fiancee,” he said.
“It also epitomises bravery. He knew there would be no lifeboats. It symbolises everything that’s good about people, not just Wallace Hartley and his band, but all the men, women and children who lost their lives.”
Hartley was given the maple, spruce and ebony violin by his fiancee in 1910.
She had a silver plaque fixed to the instrument engraved with the words: “For Wallace, on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.”
It is now thought that the instrument was inside a leather bag that was found strapped to his body 10 days after the sinking, and was then passed to Robinson.
Robinson never married and after her death in 1939, her sister donated the violin to her local Salvation Army band, where it passed to a music teacher and then the unnamed owner in whose house it was discovered in Lancashire, northwest England.
After seven years of testing including MRI scans, researchers said in March this year that the instrument was genuine.
It has already been on show at Titanic Branson and Titanic Pigeon Forge in the United States, the largest Titanic museums in the world, and later at Titanic Belfast, a tourist site in Northern Ireland.
The Titanic was built in Belfast and set sail from Southampton, southern England, for New York on April 10, 1912, before hitting an iceberg days later.