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Lost With the Titanic: 5 Treasures That Sank With the Ship

The sinking of the Titanic is one of the best known maritime disasters of all time. The size of the ship, the massive death toll and the blockbuster movie that won 11 Oscars have kept it in the public consciousness since it sank over a century ago. We know that more than 1500 people lost their lives when the ship went down but what else do we know about what the Titanic took with her to the bottom of the Atlantic?

The Disaster

The Titanic left Southampton, England on the 10th of April, 1912. It was an ocean liner, built to be among the largest, most luxurious ships of the day. For its maiden voyage it was headed to New York with over 2200 passengers and crew aboard but this was actually far less than it could carry. There had been a coal strike at the time which led to travel disruptions and uncertainty so many people decided to wait until it was over before booking passage. Lucky for them. As well over 700 third class passengers, or what we might term “normal people”, there were some fabulously rich passengers on board the Titanic. Among them were the owner of the Macy’s department store, Isidor Straus, socialite Margaret Brown who survived and was later known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, and one of the world’s richest people, multimillionaire John Jacob Astor IV.

Considering that they were in the middle of the ocean, had woefully limited space in lifeboats and a matter of only 3 hours from hitting the iceberg to sinking, it’s not surprising that nobody was really bothered about taking much with them. But with all those wealthy people on board there had to be some pretty nice stuff in the hold of the ship. So what interesting objects from the time were also lost at the bottom of the sea? And forget the Heart of the Ocean, that wasn’t real.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Spread from an early 20th century printing of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Spread from an early 20th century printing of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. By William Creswell, is licensed Under CC-BY

The Rubáiyát was a collection of Persian poems from 11th century poet, polymath and all-around smart person, Omar Khayyám. Edward FitzGerald translated the works and it was first published in English in 1859. As you might expect from a translation of centuries old Persian poems, the book did not initially fly off the shelves. The pre-Raphaelite set thought it was cool though, and by the 1880s, the book had really taken off throughout the English speaking world. That’s why, in 1911, a magnificent gold and jewel-encrusted version was made by specialist bookbinders, Sangorski & Sutcliffe. It took over two years and more than 1000 precious gems including emeralds and rubies to create. Hundreds of sheets of 22 karat gold leaf were used. The leather covered book had a slipcase made from oak and was expected to fetch serious money at the rare books auction at Sotheby’s. It seems that people weren’t really in a spending mood though, maybe due to the aforementioned coal strike, and the book was sold to American Gabriel Weis for 450 GBP, a fraction of its expected price and less than half its reserve price. So this bargain was packed up and sent on its way to its new home in America on board the Titanic. Obviously we all know what happened next and the exquisitely covered book made its home instead on the ocean floor. 

You might think that would spell the end for the book but many paper products have been recovered from the wreck, usually when they were found in bags or cases or other protective boxes.

Traces of the Rubáiyát have never been found but if it was well packaged, which presumably it was, and survived the sinking in one piece, it may be possible that at least some of it would still be preserved to this day. Leather fares well in submerged conditions and the jewels would also likely still be there so maybe in the future this treasure could still be uncovered. If it is, it’s value not only as a hugely precious item but also as a historic artefact, would be enormous. 

A Caseload of Drugs

Although smoking opium had been outlawed in the US there were 4 cases of opium noted on the Titanic’s cargo manifest. The manifest makes an interesting read with some of the other items including 35 bags of rough wood, 12 cases of ostrich feathers and 76 cases of dragon’s blood. No further context is given. It has been presumed that the opium belonged to aforementioned mega rich John Jacob Astor IV as his family fortune had come from real estate, fur trading and yes, opium. His great-grandfather had made millions smuggling opium into China in the mid 19th century so maybe the apple wasn’t falling far from the tree. An importation ban to the US had been put in place in 1909 so it’s not really clear why there were 4 cases in the Titanic’s hold. Opium was still used for medicinal purposes so it might have been making its way to pharmacies across the US but then again, maybe Astor was just planning a really big party when he arrived. Either way, those cases of sweet, sweet narcotics made their way to the seafloor to be released into the waters surrounding the wreck and maybe turning it into the fish’s new favourite hang out spot. After initially not being worried about the boat sinking and then later helping his pregnant wife into what turned out to be the last lifeboat, Astor was seen smoking on the deck half an hour before the boat went down. His body was recovered on April 22nd, 1912. 

A Renault Coupé de Ville

Only one car was recorded on the Titanic’s cargo manifest, listed as “1 case auto” with the owner listed as Carter, W.E. This was William Earnest Carter, son of a mining magnate and who travelled in very exclusive circles, counting the Astors and Vanderbilts among his friends. The Carters had travelled to England in 1911 to attend the coronation of King George the Fifth and his wife, Queen Mary. After spending time doing whatever it is that rich people do, the Carter family, consisting of William, his wife Lucile and their two children booked cabins on the Titanic to return to the States. Carter had his brand new 1912, 25 horsepower Renault CB Coupé de Ville stored in the Titanic’s forward hold. It’s registered as being in a case but whether that means the whole automobile was in a crate or that it was not yet fully assembled is not clear. Considering that Renault had only been founded 13 years previously and that personal vehicles were still a huge luxury item, this must have cost Carter a very pretty penny. The whole family did survive the sinking with Carter putting in an insurance claim for the car for $5000, roughly $135,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation. In 2008 a similar model sold at auction for $269,500 so if this one ever makes a reappearance from the deep, it would fetch many times that. The forward hold is still mostly intact but if the Renault ever is recovered, don’t expect to be able to take it for a spin anytime soon.

An interesting side note to this story is that while Carter originally said he had helped his wife and children into a lifeboat before trying to locate other women to help, his wife Lucile refuted this in later years by saying that he had woken her up when the ship had hit the iceberg but she didn’t see him again. While she and another woman had had to row the heavy lifeboats away from the sinking ship themselves, she’d found her husband already on board the rescue ship RMS Carpathia. Lucile Carter made a statement when filing for divorce from Carter in 1914: “I never saw him again until I arrived at the Carpathia at 8 o’clock the next morning, when I saw him leaning on the rail. All he said was that he had had a jolly good breakfast and that he never thought I would make it.” Charming. 

La Circassienne Au Bain

The most expensive item on board the ship, at least according to insurance claims filed in the wake of the Titanic disaster, was a painting by French artist, Merry-Joseph Blondel. The painting, originally titled “Une Baigneuse” or “A Bather”, was a life-sized oil painting of a naked lady stepping down into a sort of stylized bath you might expect to see from Roman times. And no, she doesn’t look like Kate Winslet. Blondel was very successful in his time with this early painting being displayed at the Louvre in 1814, the year it was painted. Almost a century later, Swedish rich kid and umlaut-heavy Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson snapped up “La Circassienne au Bain” to take with him on his trip to study in America, maybe wanting to flex on all those other students with “Chat Noir” posters on their walls. 

Sensibly deciding not to rush back for the large artwork when the ship started going down, Björnström-Steffansson actually only managed to survive the sinking by leaping into a lifeboat as it was being lowered into the sea. Afterwards, he made the largest single insurance claim against the White Star Line, the shipping company that owned the Titanic, for $100,000 or over $2.5 million today. 

The Violin of Wallace Hartley

OK, this artefact had a somewhat happier ending. One of the enduring images of the scenes after the ship hit the iceberg is that of the Titanic’s band playing even as the inevitable was happening. Consisting of 8 members, they started off in the first class lounge and later moved to the front half of the ship, playing tunes to calm the passengers and give them hope. Sadly, they all went down with the ship, with band leader and violinist Wallace Hartley’s last words reportedly being: “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.” Hartley’s body was recovered ten days later along with his violin which had been mostly protected in its leather case. He was listed as body number 224. Word had spread of the band’s heroic selflessness and his funeral had over 1000 attendees with apparently tens of thousands more lining the procession route. In 2008 he received perhaps the greatest honour anyone could hope to achieve with a Wetherspoons pub named after him in his native Colne, Lancashire.

In 2006, a violin was unearthed that was claimed to be the lost instrument from the Titanic. It was in a monogrammed case and had an engraved plate stating that it was a gift from Hartley’s fiancee, Maria Robinson. After 7 years of careful research which consisted of scans and expert analysis, evidence was also found that Hartley’s fiancee had managed to come into possession of the violin after the Titanic sank and it was declared as the genuine article. It was sold at auction for 900,000 GBP (1.7 million dollars) in 2013, making it the most expensive artefact from the Titanic so far. It’s currently housed in the Titanic Museum Attraction in Tennessee.

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