Treasures: Titanic sale really takes the biscuit
Tomorrow afternoon, a 103-year-old biscuit will go under the hammer in England. It was part of the survival kit in one of the RMS Titanic lifeboats. If it achieves its estimate of between €11,000 and €13,600, it could become the most expensive biscuit ever sold.
The Spillers and Bakers hard tack biscuit emerged from one of the surviving lifeboats and was kept as a souvenir by James Fenwick. He and his wife Mabel were on honeymoon on board the RMS Carpathia, the transatlantic steamship that rescued passengers from the RMS Titanic.
The biscuit has spent the last hundred years in a Kodak envelope in a display cabinet as part of Fenwick's personal archive of memorabilia from the most collectible shipping disaster of all time.
"I'm not a biscuit conservator, but it looks in pretty good shape to me," says Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge and Son, the Wiltshire auctioneering firm which is conducting the sale. The biscuit will attract the attention of specialist collectors of Titanic memorabilia, but its sheer quirkiness may be a selling point in itself. "There are people who collect unusual one-off items," says Aldridge. One of these might just take the biscuit.
Other expensive biscuits include one from Shackelton's Arctic exhibitions which fetched almost €4,000. A biscuit from the Lusitania held in Cobh Museum should also be worth a few thousand.
Fenwick's journal, which records the rescue of Titanic survivors, is going into the same Wiltshire sale and is estimated to sell between €8,166 and €13,606.
On the morning of April 15, 1912, he wrote: "5am. Awakened by hearing a man's voice. Titanic gone down. We are rescuing passengers and are surrounded by icebergs." The rest is history.
The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank with a loss of 1,512 lives. The Carpathia responded to the distress signal and arrived at the scene in time to rescue 705 of the survivors. One of these was the American socialite and activist Margaret Brown, who later became known as "the unsinkable Molly Brown".
Among the items in the sale is a silver loving cup (€54,441 to €81,649) that Brown presented to the captain of the Carpathia on behalf of the Titanic survivors.
Irish buyers are among the most enthusiastic collectors of Titanic memorabilia given the ship's obvious links with Belfast and Cobh, and bidders from here are expected to participate in the British auction whether in attendance or bidding online. The online registration forms are posted on the auctioneer's website.
The auction also includes a photograph of the iceberg that may have sunk the Titanic. It was taken by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert on April 15, 1912, before he had heard about the disaster. It is accompanied by a letter: "On one side red paint was plainly visible, which has the appearance of having been made by the scraping of a vessel on the iceberg."
The photograph (€13,606 to €20,410) was later used in court to defend Titanic's owners, White Star Line, in the litigation following the sinking. There are also a range of smaller items from a film poster (€340 to €476) for the 1958 film, A Night To Remember, to a collection of postcards (€27 to €40).
"Shipwreck memorabilia will always be popular but the Titanic is light years ahead of the others," says Aldridge.
A menu from the last voyage of the Lusitania, which is also very collectible, could fetch around €1,360. A menu from the Titanic would be up to €50,000. "You have to remember that the Lusitania made her maiden voyage in 1907. She had a successful eight-year career. The Titanic had a matter of days."
And keeping it in the family, tomorrow's sale also includes a dinner menu from the Britannic, Titanic's ill-fated sister ship. The menu is dated September 25, 1916, eight weeks before the Britannic sank after hitting a mine in the Aegean Sea. It's estimated between €2,721 and €4,081.
A Carpathia menu for April 21, 1912 is estimated between €544 and €816. But then, the Carpathia is only famous through association with the Titanic. This September, a menu from the last lunch on the Titanic sold in New York for the equivalent of €77,468.
"You could say that the fascination with shipwrecks is a morbid one, but the people who collect aren't morbid. They're just fascinated by the history," says Aldridge. "Every man, woman and child on board had a story behind them."
Despite the sky-high prices Titanic memorabilia can fetch at auction, he feels there may well be more out there, especially in Northern Ireland where the ship was built.
"Belfast was her birthplace. She was there for a couple of years. She was in Southampton for about a week. And her last port of call was Cobh. Ninety per cent of postal material from Titanic has a Queenstown postmark."
A few years ago, Aldridge travelled to Belfast to do a series of evaluation roadshows where members of the public would bring in items to be valued.
"One man had been clearing out his deceased father's bedroom. He emptied out the bedside cabinet and found an original ticket to the 1911 Titanic launch in Belfast, along with a collection of Britannic memorabilia.
"The collection sold for around €60,000."
Other shipwrecks of Irish interest include the Wild Deer, an emigrant ship bound for New Zealand that went down off the coast of Down on January 13, 1883. The ship's spectacular figurehead has never been found.
"Despite 40 years of searching for it, I have drawn a blank," says the retired antiques dealer Glen McGivern. "It was last seen in the late 1960s in a service station in Ballyhalbert on the Ards Peninsula. No-one knows where it went."
Other dealers prefer to avoid shipwreck memorabilia. "All my stuff comes from ships that survived the ocean rather than the ones that went down," says Mike Walsh, who sells maritime memorabilia in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.
"I have nothing that was taken up from the deep. I wouldn't like it. I'd believe that the bad luck was in the piece."
For further details see henry-aldridge.co.uk.
In the salerooms
The top lot at Adam's Country House Collections Sale at Slane Castle on October 13 was an Irish George II giltwood pier mirror, which sold for €60,000 (the upper estimate was €50,000).
It was made in the mid 18th century by Francis and John Booker of Dublin, the celebrated "looking glass merchants, glass grinders and glass sellers" and belongs to a documented group of similar mirrors made by the same family.
Over the past 10 years, three of these have sold in Christie's, London.
A fine mahogany breakfront bookcase made in the early 19th century during the brief reign of William IV achieved a hammer price of €33,000 (the upper estimate was €20,000).
The piece is attributed to the Dublin cabinet makers John Mack, Zachariah Williams and William Gibton who traded together on Stafford Street from 1810.
A portrait (pictured above) of the second Arthur Guinness (1768-1855), son of the founder of the Guinness Brewery, sold for €32,000, more than doubling its upper estimate.
The Francis Johnston Speaker Clock, formerly housed in Dáil Eireann, sold at Fonsie Mealy's sale of the contents of Furness House, Co Kildare, for €115,000 on October 6.
The musical clock, which chimes the British national anthem every half hour, was operational but in need of some repair. It was made around 1795 by the clockmaker, James Waugh of Armagh, who produced an astronomical clock for use in Armagh Observatory in 1793 and moved to Dublin in 1805.
The clock is named for its former owner Francis Johnston, architect of the GPO and Armagh Observatory. The clock, which also plays Rule Britannia, was most probably made for the Irish House of Parliament and may have been acquired by Johnston when he was engaged to convert Parliament House into a bank after the building was purchased by the Bank of Ireland in 1802.
WATERFORD ANTIQUES & VINTAGE
If you've inherited a cupboard full of crystal and want to know how much it's worth, free valuations will be on offer at the Waterford Antiques Art & Vintage Fair, which will take place on Sunday, November 1 in Lawlor's Hotel, Dungarvan, for the first time in many years. The event was previously hosted by the former Jury's Hotel in Waterford and is organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs.
The fair has been revived by popular demand and will include several dealers from the Waterford area as well as the stalwarts from across the country.
Admission is €2.50. For further details contact firstname.lastname@example.org.