Courtesy Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Some of the richest people in the world lost everything when the Titanic sank. Now a consortium of new-money risk takers is poised to profit from turn-of-the-20th-century artifacts that curators had hoped to claim.
Three hedge funds banded together to submit a $19.5 million bid to buy the once-lost treasures of the ocean liner, thwarting a group of British museums backed by the National Geographic Society and James Cameron, who directed the 1997 movie “Titanic.” The museums could muster only $19.2 million and withdrew this month.
The new owners — Apollo Global Management, Alta Fundamental Advisers and PacBridge Capital Partners — said they would keep the collection intact as a tourist draw, but declined to comment further.
Theirs is an evocative, sobering and mesmerizing haul.
The 5,500 items recovered from 2 miles below the surface in international waters off Newfoundland are remnants of a gilded era: a bowler hat, the crusty leather folds of a once-sumptuous Gladstone bag and the dark, sleek curves of a bronze angel that graced the post of a staircase.
Part of the collection is on display at the Luxor in Las Vegas.
The objects are “time capsules that take you back to 1912,” said Kevin Fewster, director of Royal Museums Greenwich, which was part of the museum bid. “It’s this complete section of humanity and society.”
A door to first class
First-class passengers boarded through a steel door, which was recovered in 1998. Once past its threshold, passengers would ride elevators to higher floors, where they could wave farewell to people on the pier below.
“First-class passengers had their own way in,” said Eric Kentley, the author of “Discover the Titanic,” who took part in a 1994 expedition to the wreck. “Class is a big part of the Titanic story.”
The ship was a microcosm of Edwardian class structure, said Paul Burns, a member of the board at the Titanic Historical Society.
“It was a Royal Mail steamer and an immigration ship,” he explained. “Among the third class and even second class there were people that were taking a chance on life and moving their entire families, and moving to the U.S. and seeking a better opportunity.”
Historical pieces like this door have helped tell the story of the Titanic, a tragedy that has captivated archaeologists, historians, engineers, maritime experts and many others for more than a century.
The Titanic’s bounty has been on the block since June 2016, when Premier Exhibitions, a promoter from Atlanta, went into bankruptcy and sought to sell off its tourist attractions, including the Titanic trove.
The museums that tried to bid, including Royal Museums Greenwich, National Museums Northern Ireland and Titanic Belfast, already have some artifacts in their collections.
Invented in the mid-19th century as a hunting hat for the English aristocracy, the bowler hat eventually became part of a city businessman’s uniform.
While the richest might have worn top hats and the workers wore flat caps, it was “quite a dapper thing” for men to wear a bowler hat at the time, said William Blair, the director of collections at National Museums Northern Ireland.
“A lot of that collection, what it does speak to is that Downton-Abbey-at-sea idea,” he said. “It’s social stratification.”
Young lives lost
Only 60 of the 113 children aboard the Titanic survived, and ceramic marbles are the smallest objects recovered from the wreck. Most of the children who died were in third class.
People in third class, who were segregated because they had to be screened by immigration officials when they arrived in the United States, had limited access to other parts of the ship. That meant they had to find their way around an unfamiliar layout to get to lifeboats.
“Your life chances were definitely higher if you were first class,” Blair said.
The Titanic, the largest passenger liner in the world at the time, was called unsinkable and left port with only 1,178 lifeboat seats for the 2,224 passengers and crew members. Almost 1,500 people died when it sank.
The grand staircase
Bronze cherubs adorned the staircases of the upper landings, where first-class passengers liked to meet. This one, which is part of the collection, is smaller than the ones on the main staircase, so it probably came from a staircase at the back.
The most notable was the grand staircase, where passengers met before a visit to the Turkish baths or after dinner. It spanned six decks and was topped by a dome of iron and glass.
“In the public imagination, the actual staircase is almost like a character in the films,” Blair said. “It almost defined and helped to express a sense of the luxury of the ship, and the scale.”
The lives of the super rich
The ship’s pursers used Gladstone bags like the one recovered in 1987 to transport valuables. But “in the grand scheme of things, when it comes down to it, people were concerned to save their lives, not their jewelry,” Blair said.
A chance to take in the air
Benches were placed on open deck spaces and show the kind of Gilded Age opulence that could be seen on board.
An electric chandelier still holds a fragment of a lightbulb. It hung in the first-class smoking room, which was designed to emulate fashionable gentlemen’s clubs with mahogany walls inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gilded sconces.
The décor in the Titanic was old-fashioned, and much of it was furnished in a “faux-rich style,” Kentley said. “An English upper-class gentleman would have felt right at home in something like that.”
The power of artifacts
It took two attempts to retrieve a section of the hull, known as the Big Piece, which weighs 17 tons and comes from the starboard, or right, side of the ship. The first attempt in 1996 failed because of poor weather. A 1998 expedition succeeded, and the Big Piece is on display with other parts of the collection at the Luxor.
The larger portholes looked into cabins, while the smaller portholes were for the bathrooms. “It’s all beautifully riveted,” Kentley said. “You’re immediately transported back to the heyday of British shipbuilding.”
Seeing the piece in person also gives a better sense of the scale of the ship, he added.
When people are given numbers, “it won’t mean anything, but when you’re standing in front of that big piece and you see the size of a porthole, it dawns on you that, God, yes, this was a massive, massive ship,” Kentley added. “The information is nowhere near as powerful as standing in front of an artifact.”