LONDON – It's probably a myth that he played the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the great ship sank, but the battered, seawater-damaged violin believed to have belonged to the bandleader on the Titanic is to go on auction this weekend.
The instrument is likely to fetch the highest amount ever for a piece of Titanic memorabilia – up to nearly half a million dollars, the English auction house Henry Aldridge & Son said Thursday.
For many devotees of the Titanic and of the movies it spawned, the story of the orchestra continuing to play to comfort or distract terrified passengers remains an emotional touchstone, the epitome of courage, calm and defiance in the face of impending doom.
All the musicians drowned in the disaster, including leader Wallace Hartley. His body was plucked from the icy waters several days later, with the large leather case in which he carried his violin still strapped to him.
"The band playing on was an incredibly selfless act," said Andrew Aldridge of the auction house. "William Hartley is an iconic individual. That is represented in the instrument."
Whether the one that will go under the hammer Saturday was actually Hartley's violin has been the subject of extensive scrutiny over the last few years.
The auction house, which is known for its specialization in Titanic items, is satisfied that it is. The instrument has been examined by experts in several fields and even underwent a CT scan for a closer look at its composition and damage.
Other items that were found with it have been authenticated as belonging to Hartley, including a silver cigar case. After the Titanic sank in April 1912 with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, Hartley's fiancée, Maria Robinson, wrote in her diary that the violin had been recovered from the Atlantic and given to her.
After being declared the real McCoy earlier this year, the violin went on display for nearly three months in the summer in the United States, at Titanic museums in Missouri and Tennessee. It has also been exhibited in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the massive ocean liner was built, and in Dewsbury, the northern English town where Hartley lived.
"There's been phenomenal interest in it," Aldridge said.
So far, the most expensive piece of Titanic paraphernalia bought at auction is a 32-foot-long schematic drawing of the ship that was used in the official inquiry into the tragedy, Aldridge said. That sold two years ago for about $350,000.
Saturday's auction includes other big-ticket items besides Hartley's fiddle, such as the Titanic's original insurance document and an original promotional poster.
But the violin is without doubt the highlight. Although the story of Hartley and his fellow musicians playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as their finale before the ship slipped beneath the waves is probably a sentimental invention – one later picked up by and immortalized in film treatments – witnesses did report that the band kept on performing as disaster loomed.
A letter Hartley sent to his "dear parents" from on board ship was auctioned off by Henry Aldridge & Son in April for nearly $150,000.
"Just a line to say we have got away all right," Hartley wrote. "It's been a bit of a rush but I am just getting a little settled. This is a fine ship."