Sinking Ships, Floating Wallets

Is it possible that a single violin survived where hundreds died?

The Titanic. The violin.

These two images alone are enough to think of that timeless scene in Titanic where amidst the chaos of a real human tragedy, a violinist continued to play – however, as we all know, music was not enough to save the day.

But putting Leonardo and the rest aside – what about the real thing? For when the Titanic actually went down, Wallace Hartley, the band leader was indeed playing the violin. This was no idealistic thinking of a director. Sadly Hartley was killed in the sinking, but his legacy, in the form of his violin, lives on in the auction house of Henry Aldridge & Son in Wiltshire.

The life of this, now possibly the most famous violin in history, has a romantic beginning. It was a gift to Hartley from his fiancée Maria Robinson to celebrate their engagement. Indeed, it even has a silver plate on it with this dedication written. In turn I like to think that the reason Hartley played the violin at such a time was not merely just to calm passengers as they faced near certain death, but to calm himself by concentrating on the things he loved – his music and fiancée.

The violin survived because Hartley, at some point, put it away in a leather case (which is also up for auction), and strapped it to himself along with a cork lifejacket. When his body was found a full ten days later, the violin was recovered, and given back to Maria, who recorded the item’s return in her diary. Twenty-seven years later, Maria passed away, and the violin was donated to the Salvation Army and in unknown circumstances, it was then passed on to the current owner’s mother. Now the item has finally come to light, and will be sold at auction today (19th October).

It is a heartwarming tale, of how a single, iconic object can survive through time – but is it just a bit too fantastical? Many doubt the authenticity of the piece, although Henry Aldridge & Son have been trying to prove it for the last seven years. Experts consulted on the case range from newspaper archivists, to jewelry experts, to forensic experts who found sea salt deposits in the wood and it has even undergone a CT scan, which identified damage such as cracks and light restoration. However, Daniel Butler, a maritime historian, has also claimed that after ten days at sea the violin would have fallen apart, and at the very least the wood would have become deformed, and lost all shine. In an additional twist, and perhaps adding the most doubt to the case, is the fact that a violin was not recorded in the inventory that was made of items that were recovered from Mr. Hartley’s body. However, the auctioneers, who previously sold a menu from a lunch to celebrate the launch of the Titanic for £30,000, finally decided on the authenticity of the instrument this May, leading to the auction today, where it is estimated to reach £300,000. Whilst I, unfortunately, am not able to make a bid (for some reason my student loan won’t stretch to £300,000), whoever does will be paying a lot of money for an unplayable instrument. Perhaps this will mean that the romantic beginning of the violin’s journey, to celebrate a couple’s love, will have an equally poignant ending, remembering that they were never married – and all because of an iceberg in the Atlantic.

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