Titanic Auction Calls for a Gigantic Bankroll

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- It's the ultimate luxury item: A 5,500-piece collection of artifacts recovered from the Titanic -- and you can buy it all for around $200 million at auction this spring on the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking.

"We have determined that the time has come for us to transfer ownership of this collection to a steward who is able to continue our efforts and will preserve and honor Titanic's legacy," says Mark Sellers of Premier Exhibitions ( PRXI), which holds official salvage rights to the vessel and will auction off its entire collection April 15.
A 17-ton piece of the Titanic's hull is among items going up for auction this spring, but don't expect to just pick up this single piece for your front yard. The entire lot of salvaged artifacts is to be sold together for an estimated $189 million.

That's the 100th anniversary of the day Titanic sank some 400 miles off of the Canadian coast after striking an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Britain to America.

Billed as unsinkable, the luxury liner didn't carry enough lifeboats for everyone, and two-thirds of its 2,200 passengers and crew -- including super-wealthy ticket holders such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim -- perished.

Titanic memorabilia has been a hot seller ever since, with companies bringing out items such as commemorative postcards within days of the disaster.

"The stunning news of its sinking shook the world, resulting in countless books and magazine articles revealing endless 'mini-sagas' about the lives of the passengers on board," said Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey's, which is conducting the auction. "On a personal level, my 12-year-old son seems as fascinated by the Titanic as my father was before me. The saga just seems to go on and on."

Gary Robinson, one of about two-dozen major Titanic collectors, said the 1997 film Titanic -- which won 11 Academy awards and grossed a then-record $1.8 billion worldwide -- took interest in the disaster to a whole new level.

"The movie was both a blessing and a curse for collectors," he said. "It was a blessing in that it bought out items from peoples' closets and attics that they didn't previously think the public would have much interest in. But it was a curse in that it drove memorabilia prices through the roof."

Auctioneers around the world plan to mark the shipwreck's centennial by holding the largest auctions ever of life jackets, dinner menus and other surviving items from the ship.

Most of the material either came from Titanic survivors or from rescue crews sent from Canada to recover bodies. (Some items were found in the pockets of dead people's clothes.)

Premier has also sponsored seven underwater expeditions to the ship's final resting place, which explorers discovered in 1985 some 2.5 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean's waves.

The salvage company's collection ranges from a 17-ton piece of Titanic's hull to a statue of an angel that once graced the ship's grand staircase, which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet made famous in the Titanic movie.

You'll need a Titanic-sized bank account to bid for Premier's holdings, though.

That's because the U.S. court overseeing Titanic's salvage rights has authorized sale only to a single bidder who agrees to keep the collection intact, put it on public display and open it to researchers. Estimated price for the entire lot: $189 million or more.

Would-be collectors who don't have that kind of money will have to settle for smaller auctions set to take place on or around April 15.

Britain's Henry Aldridge & Son plans to hold a March 31 auction that features a menu from lunch served in the first-class dining room hours before the tragedy. One of only some two dozen surviving Titanic menus, it's expected to fetch some $160,000.

In New York, Bonhams will hold an April 15 auction that includes the only known unused ticket to the ship's May 1911 launch from the Irish shipyard that built it. Expected auction price: $50,000 to $70,000.

"The sale is shaping up well," says Bonhams maritime expert, Gregg Dietrich. "I think the Titanic is one of the public's 'bookmarks' in time, such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11."

If those prices still don't float your boat, Premier offers several commemorative items decorated with small pieces of coal recovered from the wreck. Used to fuel Titanic's steam engines, the coal is the only memorabilia the court had previously allowed Premier to sell.

Prices range from $15 for a keychain decorated with tiny bits of coal to $2,000 for a display case that combines a piece of Titanic's coal with a scale model of the ship.

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