April 3, 2012 at 7:48 PM ET
All the bids are in for the biggest-ever sale of Titanic artifacts, but there's still a chance to get in on a different round of bidding for more affordable memorabilia from the world's most famous shipwreck.
Bidding closed on Monday in the sale of more than 5,500 items recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the Atlantic, said Dara Busch, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Guernsey's auction house. The legal rulings that paved the way for the sale require that the collection, valued at $189 million in 2007, must be sold as a single lot — and that the buyer must make the artifacts available for public exhibition and research.
Interest in the Titanic is reaching a peak this month, due to the 100th anniversary of the ocean liner's sinking on April 15, 1912. The ship hit an iceberg during its maiden voyage from England to New York, setting off a disaster that killed more than 1,500 of the ship's 2,228 passengers and crew. The wreck was rediscovered in a 1985 underwater expedition, and the items being auctioned were recovered by RMS Titanic Inc. in a series of dives between 1987 and 2004.
Since their recovery, many of the items have been put on display by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, but RMS Titanic Inc. is now looking to sell it all in accordance with the court-mandated procedures.
The artifacts range from a chef's hat, socks and other clothing ... to jewelry that was found in the Titanic's safe ... to a 20-ton section of the ship's hull known as "the Big Piece." Busch declined to tell me how many bids were received, but Guernsey's has been quoted as saying that the qualified bidders included individuals, museums, private companies and even governments.
Busch said the auction house plans to reveal the identity of the winning bidder during a New York press conference on April 11.
The losers can take comfort in the fact that another auction of Titanic memorabilia is due to get started on April 19, presented by New Hampshire-based RR Auction. The weeklong sale of 180 items will close on April 26 and is expected to raise $800,000 to $1 million, said Bobby Livingston, RR Auction's vice president of sales and marketing.
Livingston emphasized that the sale isn't just for high rollers. "We have items that will sell for $100," he told me today. "There are lots of things in the auction that anybody can bid on and win."
The lower-priced sale items are likely to include sheet music, books and flyers that touch on Titanic themes but have little connection to the tragedy itself. The big-ticket items are artifacts with a direct tie to the Titanic's first and final voyage, such as:
• A letter written by the Titanic's bandleader to his parents, and dropped off during one of the voyage's early stopovers. "This is a fine ship and there ought to be plenty of money on her," Wallace Hartley wrote on April 10, 1912. Livingston said he considered the letter to be "the most incredible item because it's written on Titanic letterhead, and it's his last known letter. ... Just to have Hartley mention 'the band that played on' amid the screams and the panic to calm the passengers — it brings them to life." Hartley perished in the disaster, but the letter was delivered to his parents after his death. It's expected to bring a price of $100,000 to $200,000.
• A picture of two icebergs floating in the North Atlantic, taken on April 16, 1912, by a passenger on the Carpathia, one of the ships that came to the Titanic's rescue. The lifeboat visible in the upper right corner of the picture is probably from the Titanic. Some news reports point to one of the bergs in the picture as the "killer iceberg," but Livingston said that can't be confirmed. "There were over 200 icebergs in the area, and it's never been determined which one the Titanic struck," he told me. "It's certainly possible that that's the iceberg." Expected price: $5,000 to $8,000.
• A deck chair from the Titanic that was washed overboard and recovered by the vessel Mackay-Bennett during the cleanup of the ocean site in April 1912. "This is one of seven [Titanic deck chairs] that's known to exist today," Livingston said. Expected price: $100,000 to $150,000.
• A gold locket that was found among the effects of Edward Herbert Keeping, a valet who died in the Titanic disaster. The locket was returned to his widow and remained in the family, occasionally going out on loan for exhibits. "The family came to us, the great-granddaughter, and asked us to auction it," Livingston said. Expected price: $100,000.
Other items up for sale include a kimono belonging to fashion designer Lady Duff-Gordon, who was said to have worn such a "kimono-style wrap" when she escaped the Titanic on a lifeboat and made her way to the Carpathia; a mounted chip of mahogany wood salvaged from one of the Titanic's wrecked doors; and scores of Titanic pictures and postcards.
Even everyday items, such as cardboard memorial cards printed after the disaster, can take on additional value due to the aura that surrounded the doomed ship. "The Titanic is one of those moments in history demonstrating the fallibility of humanity," Livingston told me. What kind of price tag can you put on that? Stay tuned: In a couple of weeks, we'll find out.
Update for 7:35 p.m. ET April 5: I neglected to mention a third Titanic sale that's due to take place at Bonhams' New York auction house on April 15, offering items ranging from period postcards to an untorn ticket to the Titanic's launch ceremony and a handwritten account of the tragedy by the Carpathia's captain. Check out today's posting for the details.
More about the Titanic:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.