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Auction House To Sell Titanic Collection


This April will mark 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic. There are events planned from Northern Ireland to Nova Scotia to honor those who died when the mighty steamship when down in the north Atlantic. There will also be an auction. The first of its kind of a collection of over 5,000 items salvaged from the ocean floor. Those artifacts, which a judge has ruled must be sold as a collection, were found during seven expeditions to the wreckage, from the late '80s to 2004. Arlen Ettinger is handling the sale for the company that oversaw the recovery. He is president of auction house, Guernsey's, in New York. And he joins us now.

Mr. Ettinger, thanks for being here.

ARLEN ETTINGER: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So tell us about this collection. What kind of objects from the Titanic are we talking about?

ETTINGER: Well, it's an astounding collection of more than 5,500 objects that've been recovered, from small personal items like a diamond bracelet that spells out the name Amy, to the steering wheel stand with spokes still from the original steering wheel from the ship, to decorative items like a bronze cherub that adorned the grand staircase, to simply something called the big piece - a 34,000 pound section of the hull.

GREENE: How is something like that recovered? I mean, the conditions must've been pretty treacherous to go down and get sections of the hull and everything else from the ocean floor.

ETTINGER: Indeed. The ship lies two and a half miles down, about 400 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. For many, many years, no one knew precisely where it was until 1985. and then, as you've mentioned, seven expeditions over many years were undertaken to remove items from the debris floor surrounding the ship, as opposed to taking them from the ship directly, the ship being viewed as a sacred object.

Those objects are being sold by Guernsey's as a single lot, but bids have to be submitted to us very shortly. Ultimately, the winner must be approved by the court, which wants to be assured that the future owner will maintain this historic collection in the way it deserves to be.

GREENE: You mentioned there are these conditions. It has to be sold as one lot. The new owner has to allow at least a small portion of it to be shown publicly so people can enjoy it. Another requirement is that whoever buys it can't separate it in the future and can't sell individual items separately. Why all these rules?

ETTINGER: Well, let me be clear. I have a 12-year-old son, Eli. Eli seems as compelled by this story as my father was before me. In other words, it's a timeless story that just seems to go on and on.

And the court, in its wisdom, wants to make sure that there is a collection to represent the Titanic down the road. The wreck itself is, unfortunately, rapidly deteriorating in the brutal conditions deep in the north Atlantic. And although scientists may disagree how long it will take, they do agree that sooner or later there'll be no more wreck on the bottom of the sea. It'll be just rusted away and swept away in the currents.

So this collection is, for all purposes, the Titanic. And the court simply wants to make sure it stays intact.

GREENE: The collection has been valued at about $189 million. I guess I'm wondering if you have a favorite object, something that really strikes you.

ETTINGER: Well, I must say that that big piece that I've mentioned...

GREENE: This is the piece of the hull that you were talking about.

ETTINGER: It's a piece of the hull, rivets and portholes and all. and you stand next to this thing that measures about 15 feet tall by 35 feet wide, about an inch thick of steel plate, and you wonder, oh my god, what forces had to have been in place at the moment of that great tragedy to rip that hull open like a tin can.

GREENE: Thank you so much for talking to us.

ETTINGER: My pleasure.

GREENE: That's Arlen Ettinger, who is president of the New York auction house Guernsey's.


GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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