There can hardly be a tragedy in history that has intrigued and fascinated more than the sinking of the Titanic in l9l2: but little known is the story of the art on board the ship when it sunk
In the film version “Titanic”, James Cameron spiced up the action by alluding to lost Monets, Picassos, and Degas. For example, a poor rendition Picasso’s “demoiselles d avion” (appearing to be about a third of the actual size) in on display in Kate Winslet’s boudoir.
But, despite such Tomfoolery, the actual count of lost artworks remains fairly obscure, especially since very little artwork was filed and claimed for from insurers. And it does appear that, despite the incredible opulence of the interiors, very little original artwork was newly commissioned by the company.
Nevertheless, the evidence we have suggests that there was still important art lost on the voyage. Take the spectacular jewelled edition of The Rubaiyat – a collection of about 1,000 poems by the 11th-century Persian mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam. The binding of this incredibly luxurious book contained 1,500 precious stones, each set in gold. It had boarded the fateful Titanic so as to be transported to an American buyer, sold at auction in March 1912 for a then-substantial sum of $1,900.
Another known lost work is the desperately valuable 4′ x 8′ painting by Blondel called ‘La Circassienene au Bain’. We know about this one since its owner, Haken Bjornstrom-Steffansen (not on board), claimed $100,000 insurance money for the work. Similarly, Emilio Portaluppi claimed $3,000 for an autographed portrait of Garibaldi said to have been lost.
And, besides the objet d’art, there was a further loss to art in the form of famous American painter Francis Davis Millet (November 3, 1846 – April 15, 1912). A close friend and colleague of John Singer Sargent, Millet was one of the highest profile passengers to go down at sea but his name has faded with time and little recognition is accorded to his legacy. Nonetheless, he was contemporaneously internationally feted for his murals at the Boston public library and for a series of salon style paintings.
Luckily, once we pass the 100th anniversary of its sinking on 15 April, measures will be in place to prevent the plundering. The ship will then fall under the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which aims to prevent unscientific or unethical exploration. Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, said the sinking of the Titanic was ‘anchored in the memory of humanity’ and it was important to protect the site where 1,500 people lost their lives.
‘There are thousands of other shipwrecks that need safeguarding as well… We do not tolerate the plundering of cultural sites on land, and the same should be true for our sunken heritage,’ she added.
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