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Titanic auction interest rises as 100th mark nears

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RICHMOND, Va. — The April 1 auction of more than 5,000 Titanic artifacts a century after the luxury liner’s sinking has stirred hundreds of interested calls, with some offering to add to the dazzling trove already plucked from the ocean floor.

Auctioneer Arlan Ettinger said his New York auction house, Guernsey’s Auctioneers & Brokers, has heard from some descendants of the more than 700 survivors, including one offer he describes as morbid: papers found on the floating body of a passenger after the sinking.

“Their relative was found floating and, when the body was recovered, papers were removed — passports and other documents,” he said. “That has stayed in the family’s hands and they offered it to us.”

The papers will not be included, but something much more poignant will be: a children’s bracelet with the name Amy spelled out in diamonds. Only two Amys were listed among 2,228 passengers, of whom more than 1,500 died.

“It’s very personal and very touching to see that,” Ettinger said.

The auction will feature clothing, fine china, gold coins, silverware and “The Big Piece” — a 17-ton section of the Titanic’s hull — plucked from the pitch-black depths 2 1/2 miles beneath the North Atlantic. It will be sold in one lot and the winning bid will be announced April 11. It was appraised in 2007 at $189 million.

Ettinger said Guernsey’s has had its share of high-profile auctions — treasures from the estates of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy — but the collection from the world’s most famous shipwreck tops them all. The Titanic sank April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg the night before during its maiden passage from Southampton, England, to New York.

“Where on this planet can you go and say the word ‘Titanic’ and not get some reaction?” he asked.

An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1985, about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada. The auction will be the first of Titanic artifacts collected from its final resting place, although items gathered from the ocean surface and from survivors have been sold in the past.

Premier Exhibitions Inc. has been displaying a fraction of the artifacts in traveling shows worldwide, including a permanent exhibit in Las Vegas. RMS Titanic Inc., a division of Premier that has overseen the artifacts for 18 years as the court-recognized salvor, said the public company decided to auction the collection in response to shareholders’ wishes.

By order of a federal maritime judge in Virginia who has overseen the case for years, the items cannot be sold individually and they must go to a buyer who agrees to properly maintain the collection and make it available for occasional public viewing. The sale is also subject to court approval.

Ettinger said the court-ordered covenants governing the sale made this auction a unique challenge.

“Many, many people would covet the opportunity to own this or that thing, but not the whole shebang,” he said.

Mindful of the strings attached, Ettinger will be reviewing bids through March to make sure interested parties can abide by restrictions.

“It does certainly restrict the number of potential buyers,” he said.

Still, Ettinger said he has heard from museums, companies and individuals, none of whom he will name.

Besides the massive hull section, the collection includes an array of personal items, such as a mesh purse, eyeglasses and a waistcoat remarkably preserved in a leather satchel. A bronze cherub that once adorned the Grand Staircase is included, as are bottles and ship fittings, including the stand upon which the ship’s wheel stood.

James Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program, calls the collection a “powerful and compelling” record of Titanic’s doomed voyage.

“The power of the collection as a whole speaks to the ship, to the people and the events of that night in a way that one item can’t,” said Delgado, who led a science team that recorded the wreck site in 2010. “They offer context — where they came from and what they once represented on the ship when it was afloat.”

The vast majority of the Titanic’s opulent furnishings, recreated in James Cameron’s blockbuster film “Titanic,” remain within the two main sections of the wreck, he said. The wreck is considered “sacred” and off limits to salvors.

The Guernsey auction is also offering first-of-its-kind archaeological data and images of the wreck, as well as the only detailed map of the debris field on the ocean floor. It’s about 2-by-3 miles.

The intellectual property includes more than 1,000 hours of film footage showing where the artifacts were gathered, 400,000 still images and 3-D footage of the Titanic’s bow and stern, said Brian Wainger, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions. The buyer could also have the opportunity to become the steward of the wreck site itself.

Delgado said the public’s continued fascination with the century-old wreck is due, in part, to the poignancy of the disaster and the human drama that played out on the ship’s decks while it sank. It was also the first modern disaster to capture the public imagination through wireless transmissions.

“It was the first time the world dealt with a disaster in real time,” he said.

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