Historians and memorabilia collectors have gone to war over claims news that the violin of the Titanic’s famous band leader Wallace Hartley has been found more than a century on from the ship’s tragic sinking.
Claims by auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Sons that the violin Wallace had with him when he perished in the icy water of the Atlantic have been questioned by the United States-based Titanic Historical Society and the curator of a small museum in his hometown of Colne.
They insist the Titanic’s band leader was never found with his violin. But the auctioneers have hit back saying that they have proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the instrument was not only owned by Wallace but was indeed strapped to his chest in a leather music case when his body was plucked from the sea.
Their team of researchers have spent the past six years forensically examining the battered violin, reconstructing how it managed to survive the sinking of the Titanic, was returned to Wallace’s widow from Canada and eventually ended up in the hands of an anonymous young man from Lancashire who called the auction house.
Specialists from the Forensic Science Service and Oxford University also conducted chemical analyses of the instrument which concluded that corrosion deposits on it “were considered compatible with immersion in sea water.”
There is little doubt that the violin belonged to Hartley, the Lancashire born musician who gathered with his band mates on the deck of the Titanic playing music to calm those on board and chaos engulfed the stricken passenger ship. A silver fishbone plate on the instrument contained an engraved message from Wallace’s fiancée and was given to the musician following his engagement to Maria Robinson.
The argument instead centres around whether the violin is the same one used by Wallace to play to guests until the Titanic’s stern plunged below the waves. Nigel Hampson, curator of the Titanic in Lancashire museum in Hartley’s hometown of Colne, said: “The historical record does not show that Wallace was recovered with his violin strapped to his body - it actually proves the opposite. The inventory of items recovered on Wallace's body makes no mention whatsoever of a violin or music case or anything similar being found with him. We are supposed to believe that when the ship sinks and everyone, the band included, are fighting for their lives, Wallace is more concerned with the fate of his instrument than his life?”
However Alan Aldridge, from the auctioneer house, insists their tests and historical research shows otherwise. As well as the chemical tests, their researchers uncovered a telegram sent from Maria Robinson to officials in Nova Scotia where Hartley’s body was taken thanking them for sending her his violin.
“Mr Hampson isn’t privy to the knowledge of what we’ve got,” he told The Independent. “Museums, exhibitions are very interested and want it. These are the people we need to convince. I don’t mind open debate but this is just malicious and it’s defamatory.”
Christian Tennyson Ekeberg, a historian from Wakefield who collaborated with the auction house and has published a biography of Hartley, is similarly convinced the violin was on the Titanic.
“We’ve been able to reconstruct the violin’s journey from that particular day on April 15 1912 all the way through till 2006 when I first became directly acquainted with it,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Among collectors the discovery of the violin is already causing excitement. It is due to go on display in Belfast City Hall next month and will likely be auctioned later this year. Speaking by telephone from Philadephia. Craig Sopin, a 55-year-old lawyer and the owner of the world’s largest private Titanic memorabilia collections, said: “ I am convinced, not just because of the history involved but also the forensic examinations. I questioned it myself and began as a sceptic but I’m convinced.”
He added: “It’s certainly the most iconic piece from the ship that’s ever been offered for auction. It’s probably the most iconic item in existence. Nothing has the back story this violin has.”