When the Titanic sank to the floor of the North Atlantic just a few days into its maiden voyage, it took with it thousands of pounds of food, hundreds of sacks of mail (comprising 7 million pieces of correspondence), cargo ranging from Tiffany & Co. china to bales of rubber—and a number of interesting items belonging to its passengers, including priceless manuscripts, rare art, jewelry, and reels of film.
1. La Circassienne au Bain
Painted by French artist Merry-Joseph Blondel, La Circassienne au Bain received a less-than-glowing reception when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1814, according to The Daily Beast. (“We can say nothing in favor of this work,” one critic wrote, “except that it is executed by a very skillful artist in practice.”) But in the years afterward, its reputation grew along with Blondel’s—the neoclassical artist ended up contributing decoration to places like Versailles and the Louvre.
La Circassienne was purchased by first-class passenger Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson—the son of a “pioneer in the Swedish wood pulp industry,” according to The New York Times—just before he boarded Titanic, on his way to Washington, D.C. When the ship struck the iceberg, Staffensson fled the ship by leaping off a gunwale into a collapsible lifeboat being lowered to the sea and left the painting behind. Steffansson soon filed a $100,000 claim for it, making La Circassienne au Bain the most expensive item to go down with the ship (he didn’t get the full amount he asked for, however).
For years, details about the painting remained a mystery—there weren't many descriptions of the artwork and no reproductions beyond a single engraving made five years after its exhibition. Then, in the 2010s, an artist using the pseudonym John Parker painted a recreation based on copious amounts of research; it sold at auction in 2016 for £2700 (around $3500 today).
2. A Short Story Handwritten by Joseph Conrad
In 1912, Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad sold his handwritten manuscript of a story called “Karain: A Memory,” from his collection Tales of Unrest, to collector John Quinn. It ended up headed to the U.S. on the Titanic—and, because he neglected to insure it, Conrad lost £40. According to Frances Wilson’s How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, Conrad complained afterwards that, “I depended on that sum.” Conrad would later write essays about the sinking, taking to task everyone from Ismay to the builders of the ship to the inquiry’s expert witnesses to the press.
3. More Than 100 Reels of Film
When filmmaker William H. Harbeck boarded the Titanic as a second-class passenger—with Henriette Yvois, a French model he said was his wife but most definitely was not—he carried with him 110,000 feet of film amounting to more than 100 reels, multiple cameras, and, according the publication Moving Picture News, “a $10,000 contract with the White Star line to take moving pictures of the giant vessel on her maiden trip to America.”
Previously, Harbeck had shot footage of Alaska, British Columbia, San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, and Yellowstone National Park; as he traveled in Europe in early 1912, he not only shot scenes in various countries but also sold copies of his films. According to the book Titanic and Silent Cinema, he may have filmed Titanic’s near-miss collision with another ship as it departed Southampton; one passenger described seeing “a young American kinematograph photographer, who, with this wife, followed the whole scene with eager eyes, turning the handle of his camera with the most evident pleasure as he recorded the unexpected incident on his films.”
Harbeck may have had his camera out during the sinking as well, but we’ll never know for sure: All of his film went down with the ship, and he died in the disaster. (His body, however, was recovered; it’s not known if Yvois's body was found.) After the sinking, Harbeck’s actual wife, Catherine, filed a $55,000 claim for the lost film.
Bizarrely, a woman claiming to be Brownie Harbeck filed a claim for William’s belongings, which had already been given back to Catherine. Brownie’s identity was never revealed.
4. Manuscripts by Jacques and May Futrelle
The night before they boarded the Titanic, Massachusetts residents Jacques and Lily May Futrelle stayed up all night—first, celebrating Jacques’s birthday until 3 a.m., and then packing for their trip. "If my husband had got drunk that night, he might not have sailed, and he might be alive today,” Mrs. Futrelle, who went by May, later said. “But he never did drink much.”
The Futrelles were both writers: She had published her first novel, Secretary of Frivolous Affairs, in 1911, and he was a journalist who had turned to fiction, penning novels and more than 40 mystery stories featuring detective F. S. X. Van Dusen, a.k.a. “The Thinking Machine,” beginning in 1905. (One story was a collaboration with his wife.) According to Mystery Scene magazine, in early 1912, the couple left their children with their grandparents and “traveled in Europe for several weeks while Jacques wrote magazine articles, visited a number of publishers and promoted his work amongst European readers.” He also paid a visit to Scotland Yard “in pursuit of more technical information about criminal investigating.” They cut the trip short to head home to their kids.
On the night of the sinking, Jacques put May in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship, telling her he would be along soon. It was a promise he would not keep: Jacques went down withTitanic, and his body was never found. Following the sinking, May returned to her home state of Georgia and filed a $300,000 claim for the life of her husband, as well as claims for belongings lost in the sinking, including $600 for two manuscripts she had been working on, and $3000 for her husband’s “manuscript books, plans for books, &tc.,” according to The New York Times.
5. A 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville
Fans of the film Titanic might be surprised to discover that the car in which Jack and Rose consummate their relationship was a real piece of cargo on the ship—the only known automobile brought on board, in fact (although it was reportedly in a cargo container and not out in the open as James Cameron portrayed it). Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, native William Carter, a car lover who already owned two Mercedes, bought the Coupé de Ville in Europe. He and his family, along with their servants and two dogs, had been slated to sail back to the states on the Olympic before changing their plans and booking passage on Titanic instead. Well after he had put his wife and children on a lifeboat, Carter boarded Lifeboat C with White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay, later explaining, “Mr. Ismay and myself and several officers walked up and down the deck, crying, 'are there any more women?' We called for several minutes, and there was no answer ... Mr. Ismay called again, and getting no reply, we embarked ... I can only say that Mr. Ismay entered the boat only after he saw that there were no more women on deck.” Carter survived the wreck and filed a $5000 claim for his lost vehicle, along with claims for his dogs, who also went down with the ship.
6. A Bejeweled Version of the Rubáiyyát
In 1909, British booksellers Sangorski & Sutcliffe—who were known for their elaborate designs—began the process of rebinding the American edition of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaáyyát. Bookseller Ben Maggs said in an interview with the Charles Dickens Museum that it was commissioned by a bookshop in Piccadilly “with the express intent of being the most valuable, luxurious binding ever produced.” It did not disappoint: It was made of Moroccan leather, featured three peacocks with tails embroidered in gold, and an inlay of a musical instrument called an ud in gold and ivory on the cover (and a skull on the back). According to Regency Antique Books, the cover was encrusted with “more than 1000 emeralds, rubies, amethysts, and topazes, each set separately in gold.” The book took two years to create; it came with its own oak case and was called “The Great Omar.”
Sotheby's auctioned it in late March 1912. The reserve price was £1000, but it was sold for a mere £405, or about $2000, to an American buyer, who, in Maggs’s words, “booked it on the next available, and most impressive, ship. Unfortunately for him, that ship was the Titanic. And so, the most lavish, most expensive book binding of all time now lies lost on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Using the original drawings, Sangorski & Sutcliffe replicated the book, a process that took six years; it was stored in a London bank vault that was destroyed in the Blitz. A third copy was made and can be viewed at the British Library, but, as Maggs notes, “it’s not quite as impressive as the original.”
7. A 1598 Copy of Francis Bacon's Essays
The story goes that as the Titanic was sinking, first-class passenger and rare book buyer Harry Elkins Widener was about to step in a lifeboat when he remembered that the 1598 edition of philosopher Francis Bacon’s Essays, which he had purchased on his trip, was back in his cabin—so he ran back to get it. Yet another version of the story has Widener keeping the volume in his pocket, telling his mother, “Little Bacon goes with me!” The other books Widener had purchased had been shipped back to the states separately, but the Essays—called “Little Bacon” because the book was around the size of a baseball card—was too valuable to ship.
Perhaps the “Little Bacon” was in Widener’s pocket that night; perhaps not. What we do know is that the 27-year-old Widener put his mother on a lifeboat but didn’t take a spot himself, telling a friend, “I'll think I'll stick to the big ship … and take a chance.” Both he and Bacon’s Essays went down with the Titanic, and his body was never recovered.
8. An Autographed Photo of Guiseppe Garibaldi
The New York Times put an item belonging to second-class passenger Emilio Portaluppi, a stonemason from Milford, New Hampshire, under the category of “Strange Property Claims”: “Among his effects … was a picture of Garibaldi signed by him when he presented it to Mr. Portaluppi’s grandfather. This he asks $3000 for.” The Garibaldi in question was Guiseppe Garibaldi, an Italian war hero.
Portaluppi survived the sinking, but how he did so almost belies belief. He was in bed in his cabin when the Titanic hit the iceberg. After realizing something was wrong, Portaluppi got dressed, and—either by attempting to jump into a descending lifeboat, tripping and falling, or jumping off the boat as others were doing—ended up in the water, where he clung to an ice floe for a couple of hours until he was rescued by a returning lifeboat.
9. A Pink Diamond
The 705 Titanic survivors filed insurance claims for lost property totalling nearly $1.4 million. The title of single largest claim filed belongs to Charlotte Cardeza, a first-class passenger from Germantown, Pennsylvania, who was staying in a “millionaire’s suite”—the biggest and priciest berths Titanic had to offer. She was traveling with 14 trunks. Her claim stretched 21 pages, totaled $177,352.75, and included everything from a $1.75 bar of soap, pairs of gloves (84 of them), shoes (33 pairs), a diamond necklace worth $13,000, and a “pink diamond, 6 7/16 carats, Tiffany, New York” valued at $20,000 (more than $573,000 today).