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Lost Treasures: Tragic Fate of Valuable Artworks and Lives in RMS Titanic

Smriti Malhotra

The sinking of the Iconic RMS Titanic on 14th April 1912 some 111 years from now still captivates the masses. With over 1,300 passengers, it was the biggest ship on the sea at the time. The untimely passing of about 1,500 passengers and the loss of massive cargo that boarded the ship haunted many over a period of time. The Titanic sadly remains one of the most famous and tragic maritime disasters of our time. The loss of life and property sparked a major outcry and changed the maritime safety regulations while also capturing the public’s imagination, it has been the subject of many books, films such as the notably known ‘Titanic’ made by James Cameron in 1997 and other arts as well.

The loss of life was tremendous and while nothing can ever compare to the lives lost, a lot of valuable property, personal items and arts were lost too. Out of the 1,500 passengers, around 319 were the upper class, elites such as the European Aristocrats to American Millionaires. They had brought their own treasures onto the ship; from expensive and unique jewellery to lavish motorcars, rare items to artworks. A number of rare books and literary compositions were lost in the sinking of the Titanic such as the first edition of the copy of “The Rubaiyat” by Omar Khayam which belonged to the rare book collector Henry Clay Frick, it was printed in 1859 and was estimated to be for $5000 at the time which would now roughly estimate to $133,035.

Another valuable item that went down with the Titanic was a luxurious motor car that belonged to a wealthy passenger, William Carter. The car makes a small cameo in the movie ‘Titanic’ as well. Carter, who was one of richest men of the United States of America, a millionaire travelling first-class with his wife and son, shipped the newly bought Renault car with the rest of the cargo to the RMS Titanic. He was hoping to use this $5000 dollar car in Europe only to meet a tragic end.

One of the most valuable artwork on board of the Titanic was a Neoclassical, oil masterpiece called “La Circassienne Au Bain” by the artist Merry-Joseph Blonde. The masterpiece was brought on board by a Swedish businessman Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson, who survived by jumping into one of the last lifeboats. He had filed a lawsuit against the shipping company that worked for Titanic for the loss of the single most valuable piece of art.

Merry Joseph Blondel’s painting lost in RMS Titanic, Courtesy: Barneby’s

Speaking about the Neoclassical artwork and artist, Merry-Joseph Blondel was a French Neoclassicism artist who is not popularly known for his works now but was an awarded artist in the 19th century. He has painted the likes of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1809) which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which is reflective of his style and reminiscent of Neoclassicism. Merry-Joseph Blondel studied in Rome and received commissions to decorate the Louvre, Versailles and Fontainebleau. King Charles X of France bestowed upon him the title of being the Knight of the Royal Order of the Legion of the Honour. He was also granted a seat at the Academie De Beaux-Arts in 1832. He even took up the teaching role that was offered to him by the King in a premier Paris Institution and taught there until his death in 1853.

Various lithographic reproductions made by certain French and German publications give us an idea of what the original painting may have looked like and what themes it held. The painting depicts a nude woman bathing in a bathroom surrounded by exotic decor and furniture. The woman is highly inspired by the neoclassical themes, Orientalism and the painting has elements of eastern influences. It is said that the painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon and The Louvre in the same year that the artist finished painting it. While the painting has all the ideal tenets of Neoclassicism, it lacks the grace and fluidity of the female body and grace of the style. We are not aware of the provenance of the painting that was lost in the sinking of the Titanic, however a century later the Swedish Gentleman got his hands on the painting, the how and why he bought the painting is still a mystery as he was a simple 29 year-old chemical engineering student at the time.

Faithful reproduction of Merry Joseph Blondel Artwork in Neoclassical themes. Courtesy: Barneby’s

In the 2010s, a British artist who went by the name of John Parker, did extensive research on the works of Blondel and the Neoclassical themes and made a reproduction of the famed lost painting. The painting was rendered in colour and gave us a glimpse of what the original may have looked like. The faithful reproduction was auctioned in 2016 by Plymouth Auction Rooms in England for about $3,500

Merry-Joseph Blondel’s Other Neoclassical Artwork. Courtesy: Artsy

Björnström-Steffansson’s claim for his loss from the White Line Star fetched around 19.6 million dollars, which is likely less than what he must have asked for from the private entity. However this painting has remained popular as well and has made the artist famous posthumously and his style relevant.

It is also important to mention the loss of another renowned classical painter, sculptor and writer, Francis Davis Millet who died with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. He was travelling in the ship with his longtime friend Archibald Butt. His body was recovered and he was buried in the Central Cemetery in Massachusetts. His paintings such as “A Cosey Corner” 1884, “An Autumn Idyll” 1892, “Between two fires”, 1892, “The Guitarist, Music in New Orleans” and “The Fourth Minnesota Entering Vicksburg”, 1904 are housed in private collections across the world and is in the collections of prestigious institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NewYork, The Brooklyn Museum, Tate Gallery, London and more.

The loss of life in the shipwreck with the loss of works of arts serve as a reminder to us of the far-reaching Titanic tragedy.

RMS Titanic in its full glory.
Courtesy: Barneby’s

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