Titanic's maiden departure signed by Edith Haisman and Millvina Dean © Gorringes
Veronica Cowan goes on a hunt for Titanic memorabilia on behalf of the Maritime Museum in Ramsgate, and returns triumphant.
When I read that Gorringes (the auctioneers) in Worthing were auctioning Titanic memorabilia, including the first edition cloth-bound book 'Titanic and Other Ships' by Commander Lightoller, a connection was made in my mind with Ramsgate.
I recalled Michael Hunt, curator at the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, told me last month the museum has care of the restored Motor Yacht Sundowner, a veteran of the Dunkirk Evacuation in 1940, and the former property of Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller, senior surviving officer of the Titanic.
The book would have a special resonance for Ramsgate because of the Sundowner link, so I went to a viewing at Gorringes to see it, before ringing Michael to discover whether his museum wanted to acquire it.
In a rash moment - as I had never bid at an auction before - I offered to go along to Gorringes and bid for it. Michael thought about it, then replied: “We would be most appreciative of your bidding, on behalf of the East Kent Maritime Trust, for the book - provided it does not far outrun its reserve [£100-150]. I would not be able to justify a price above £200.”
Titanic at Queenstown signed by Eva Hart & Bertram Dean. © Gorringes
As to who owned the Titanic items, Gorringe’s auctioneer Andrew Elliston-Elhinn explained that they were the property of ‘an enthusiast’ who wished to remain anonymous. Although an elderly man, he had no known links with the doomed ship: “He just found it an interesting subject,” said Andrew.
I woke at 5am on the morning of the auction, and was frightened to go back to sleep in case I slept in. How would I explain that I had failed to get the book because I missed the bidding?
I was also gripped by indecision as to what I would do if the bidding went above the limit he had set. Would I exceed it and donate the difference to the museum, I pondered, reasoning that it would be a shame to spoil the ship for a ‘hapworth’ of tar?
I felt a weight of responsibility, apart from the fact that I was breaking the rules of journalism in making myself part of the story.
Gorringes was packed when I arrived, and the young and very professional auctioneer was beetling through the lots. When he got to the Titanic memorabilia, I had an adrenalin rush. My hopes lifted when some of the items went for less than the reserve.
The Sundowner. © Ramsgate Maritime Museum
Two limited edition prints by SW Fisher of The Titanic at Queenstown and Titanic, The Maiden Departure were described as rare because they had been signed by survivors including Eva Hart, the inspiration for Kate Winslet’s character in the Hollywood blockbuster. They went under the gavel at £120 a piece, against a reserve of £150-200.
Then it was Lot 222. The bidding started at £50. There were two other bids before mine (£75), when the auctioneer said “Going to the lady” – and it was mine.
So why did the items not attract bigger bids? Andrew explained that there is quite a bit of Titanic memorabilia about, especially commemorative newspapers: “But there was a big rush of interest when the film came out.”
As to whether this kind of memorabilia is of interest to museums, Michael said: “Everything about the Titanic continues to evoke a response from the public and the activities of her senior surviving officer remain a fascination for the visitors to Ramsgate Maritime Museum, through the Sundowner/Dunkirk evacuation connection. This will, no doubt, reach even greater heights in 2012.”
I’m off to Ramsgate this weekend to deliver the book by hand. It’s not often I get a chance to help in the re-creation of history, apart from which that curator owes me a drink!