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Titanic floats their boat

Maritime memorabilia collectors joust for artifacts from the ill-fated ocean liner.

June 27, 2008|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- After Christie's got $119,000 for a Titanic life jacket at an auction in London last year, Gregg Dietrich was not surprised that his phone kept ringing with offers of other items from the ill-fated ship. "When we sell one . . . more seem to come out of the woodwork," said Dietrich, who heads the maritime (or "ocean liner") division of the auction house here. "We're been inundated with Titanic offers."

The problem was, many of the calls came from people like the man who was certain he had all sorts of valuable Titanic keepsakes: a first-class passenger list, a menu from its Cafe Parisienne, even a passenger ticket that would have been the first ever auctioned.

Except it wasn't. When the man delivered the ticket, the auctioneer delivered the bad news. "It was a copy of one that's in the Liverpool museum." The passenger list? "A high-quality reproduction."

So when Dietrich got another call, from a lawyer who said he had a client in Canada who had another Titanic life vest, he thought, "Sure . . . give me a call in a couple of centuries." When they sent him a photo, though, it didn't look like an obvious fake -- say, one of the life vests made for James Cameron's "Titanic." So Dietrich got on a plane to check it out.

And that's how Christie's got the centerpiece of its maritime auction this week. There were 250 lots for sale -- from huge ship models and posters to a pair of Royal Holland pickle jars. But most of the attention was on the 10 items from the ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, including a second-class passenger list, two "Marconi Grams" from and to survivors ("Safe on Carpathia," one read) . . . and that life vest.

A children's plaything

For 96 years, it had been in the family of now retired Chrysler worker Dunbar MacQuarrie, whose maternal grandfather, John James Dunbar, was said to have helped recover debris -- and bodies -- on the beaches of Nova Scotia after the Titanic went down. As kids, MacQuarrie and his sister wore it while jumping off hay bales. "It's true. I played with it," he recalled last week from his home in Windsor, Ontario.

But after the vest auctioned in London was described as one of half a dozen known to have survived, including one worn by Lady Astor, now owned by the Titanic Historical Society, MacQuarrie gave his to his lawyer, who locked it in a safe.

Auction houses have to be cautious, so Dietrich brought in "Titanic consultants," who said the cork-filled canvas vest did seem to be from the Titanic and likely had not been taken off a victim, for its straps had not been cut. Still, the catalog mentioned "presence of oil and possibly bloodstains."

What this vest did not have was great "provenance," one of the prime words in an auctioneer's vocabulary. The London one had been worn by the secretary to the wife of Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who was accused of bribing crew members not to return their half-filled rowboat to the sinking ship. Though he was cleared at an inquest, it was hard to match that back story, one reason the Canadian vest was given a lower estimated price, of $60,000 to $80,000.

Plus, as Wednesday's auction neared, Dietrich sensed there might be only a few avid bidders for the vest -- and more for the second-class passenger list, which carried a $15,000 to $20,000 estimate. The first-class passengers had been the famous ones, but there are more of those lists around, for "more first-class passengers survived," Dietrich noted. "With the second-class passengers, it was a little bit more of a stampede to get off the ship."

What's more, this list had good provenance, having been carried off the ship by the mother of Bertha Watt, who wrote of their harrowing experiences in a school essay, which was part of the auction lot. One person who wanted it was the collector who'd bought a first-class list last year, for $40,000, Christopher H. Lee. "My family thinks I'm crazy," he said.

Maritime collectors almost invariably say they were born into the hobby. Dietrich speaks of how his admiral grandfather led early Navy convoys in the North Atlantic at the outset of World War II, and how he and his father, a Danish carpenter, built model ships together. New York ocean liner memorabilia dealer Richard C. Farber Jr. mentions his family's transatlantic voyages and his own, decades ago, on the France. And Lee, 56, the son of an American diplomat, notes that his first trip to the U.S., as a baby, was from Europe on the Queen Mary.

Lee owns "probably" 20 ship models, 40 posters and a life ring from the Andrea Doria, in addition to his Titanic first-class passenger list. He keeps some in his Manhattan office, the rest in his Connecticut home. He also throws theme dinners, such as one duplicating the last supper on the Titanic, and jokes that he has a deal with his wife: "Every buck I invest in this, she can invest three bucks in jewelry."

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