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Rare Two-Page Letter Written Aboard the Titanic Sails Home to Ireland

by WorthPoint Staff (03/21/12).

This rare, two-page letter, handwritten aboard the Titanic four days before its sinking, sold for $40,700. It was purchased by a museum in Belfast, Ireland, called Titanic Belfast from Philip Weiss Auctions. The museum only learned about the letter a day before the auction.

OCEANSIDE, N.Y. – A rare, two-page letter, handwritten aboard the HMS Titanic by an assistant surgeon on the doomed ocean liner, sold for $40,700 after it had failed to meet the reserve in an auction held March 1-3 by Philip Weiss Auctions. The buyer—a museum in Belfast, Ireland, called Titanic Belfast—only learned about the letter a day before the auction.

After a mad scramble to secure funds to meet the reserve ($36,000), Titanic Belfast issued a bid for that amount, which was accepted by the seller. A 13-percent buyer’s premium pushed the final price to $40,700. The letter will occupy a prominent place in the museum, slated to open on March 31—100 years to the day after the Titanic was finished being built in Belfast.

“This was a perfect scenario, one that made four parties happy,” said Philip Weiss, the auctioneer for the sale. “The museum was thrilled to acquire the letter in time for its grand opening, the consignor got the reserve it wanted, the family of the letter’s author—themselves from Belfast—saw it return home, and, of course, we were happy to have conducted the sale.”

The letter was penned on White Star Line stationery by John Edward Simpson, 37 at the time, and dated April 11, 1912, four days before the disaster. Addressed to his mother, the letter provides a first-hand account of how he arrived at the Titanic prior to its fateful trip. It is very crisp and clean with a clear signature, “Love, John.” Sadly, Dr. Simpson perished in the sinking.

Two-page typed letter, written by a survivor of the Titanic two weeks after the disaster. It sold for $15,820.

He wrote, “I am very well and am gradually getting settled in my new cabin, which is larger than my last” (a reference to the previous ship he served on, the Olympic). He then went on to relate a theft of his trunks before closing. Dr. Simpson, from Belfast, was hired on April 6 and was responsible for second- and third-class passengers. His wages were to be £9 a month.

The Simpson letter wasn’t the only Titanic item in the auction, and wasn’t even the only Titanic-related letter. Another—this one a two-page typed letter—fetched $15,820. It was written by Charles Herbert Lightoller, a 2nd officer on the Titanic, also on White Star Line stationery, but aboard another ship, the Adriatic, on May 1, 1912. Lightoller survived the Titanic’s sinking.

Remarkably, Lightoller’s letter goes into a detailed account of Dr. Simpson’s last hours alive: “I may say that I was practically the last man to speak to Dr. Simpson, and on this occasion he was walking along the boat-deck in company with … They were perfectly calm in the knowledge they had done their duty” and displayed “a calm and cool exterior to the passengers.”

He continued, “We exchanged the words, ‘Goodbye, old man.’ This occurred shortly before the end and I am not aware that he was seen by anyone after.” The condolence letter was written to a Mr. R.W. Graham. Also sold was a first-class deck plan of the Titanic ($4,294), plus three early Marconigrams (radio telegrams), sent in the hours immediately following the sinking.

The first-class deck plan, titled “First Class Accommodation” and given to passengers to help them find their way around the ship, measured 40 inches by 29 ½ inches and was in overall excellent condition, with just a few tiny seam tears. It was from a second printing, dated Jan. 6, 1912. The plan showed a detailed layout of all the decks, plus illustrations of the various rooms.

Titanic Belfast—a museum and exhibition center in Belfast, Ireland—purchased the Simpson letter just in time for its March 31 grand opening, 100 years to the day that work on the Titanic was deemed complete.

Titanic Belfast is an ambitious undertaking—nine years in the planning and costing about $150 million. It took three years to build and 10 months to fit out (same as the Titanic itself). The attraction sits on the grounds of the long-defunct Harland and Wolff shipyards, and tells the story of the Titanic from its inception (in Belfast’s industrial boom years) to its sinking and aftermath.

It is hoped Titanic Belfast will be an eye-catching center, one that will jump-start the city’s tourism economy and attract visitors from Asia and elsewhere. “This is our Eiffel Tower, our Guggenheim Museum,” one spokesman said. Indeed, the visitor experience uses a barrage of computer-generated imagery, audio, special effects and interactive touch screens to tell its story.

There are recreations of the luxurious first-class accommodations, as well as the tiny third-class bunks (which were nonetheless nicely appointed). A ride carries visitors through the sights, sounds and smells of the Harland and Wolff shipyards, while the Titanic’s launch is seen on a glass screen. A “3-D cave” permits visitors to “travel” from the engine room up to the decks.

The Titanic's grand staircase, featured prominently in the movie, was faithfully recreated by Titanic Belfast.

In the section on the sinking, the lights go dim and the temperature takes a dramatic drop. The horror and the heroism are then retold. The top two floors host the Titanic Suite, a banqueting space containing a replica of the ship’s grand staircase, featured prominently in the movie “Titanic,” starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Admission to the Titanic Belfast costs about $25.

For more information about this auction, or the upcoming estate auction to be held in New York City on April 11, call 516.594.0731, e-mail to phil@weissauctions.com or visit the Philip Weiss Auctions website.

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