Over a century after the R.M.S. Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, artifacts from the disaster—which claimed the life of 1,500 people—continue to captivate collectors and history buffs. On October 21, 2017, a letter recovered from the wreckage broke a world record by selling for 126,000 British pounds, or about 166,000 U.S. dollars.
The letter comes from Oskar Holverson, a first-class passenger and U.S. businessman who perished in the water. He’d written the letter to his mother on April 13, 1912, the day before the ship hit the iceberg that would take it down. Within a week of the Titanic’s sinking, recovery ships sailed to the wreckage site to collect personal effects and dead bodies, many of which were floating at the surface because people had died in their life preservers. The letter was found on Holverson’s body, folded up in a notebook in his pocket, and was given to his mother.
Holverson’s letter is unique in that “it is the only letter written on Titanic stationery to have actually survived going into the North Atlantic” that we know of, says Andrew Aldridge, an auctioneer and valuer at the U.K. auction house that sold the letter, Henry Aldridge and Son.
Holverson’s correspondence is the most expensive Titanic letter ever to be sold in pounds. The recently auctioned letter is also valuable because it describes the ship, the food, and even fellow passenger John Jacob Astor, at the time the richest man in the world. “He looks like any other human being even tho [sic] he has millions of money,” Holverson wrote of Astor. “They sit out on deck with the rest of us.”
Three years ago, the same auction house that sold Holverson’s letter auctioned the last known letter to be written on the Titanic for £119,000. Before that, the auction house sold a letter written by violinist and Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley for £112,000. In contrast to Holverson’s letter, which was reclaimed from his person, Titanic’s “last letter” was carried onto a lifeboat in a survivor’s pocket, and Wallace’s letter was sent at a mail stop in Queenstown, Ireland—now called Cobh—that Titanic made before crossing the Atlantic.
Other artifacts from Titanic that have gone up for auction include menus, a kimono, and Hartley’s violin. But Paul Burns, vice president and curator for the Titanic Museum Attractions in Missouri and Tennessee, says that the letters are “probably the most poignant of the artifacts.” They give us a glimpse of how people who survived thought of the ship before the disaster, as well as some of the last thoughts of the people who died.
Even so, why is there still such interest in this specific tragedy, 105 years after it took place? After all, Titanic was not the deadliest marine disaster, or even the deadliest peacetime disaster (in 1987, a Philippine passenger ferry called the Dona Paz crashed into an oil tanker, killing as many as 4,000).
Aldridge and Burns point out that the story of the Titanic has received a big boost from the movies; first with A Night to Remember in 1958, and then Titanic in 1997. In addition, people are often fascinated by the irony that the most famous ship in the world, which some considered “unsinkable,” failed to secure enough lifeboats beforehand in case something did go wrong. And even when it did, not all of the boats were filled to capacity.
“The Titanic disaster is one of the greatest human interest stories in all of history,” Burns says. It makes us wonder not just why people did what they did that night, but how we would’ve reacted if we’d been there. “I would say it’s human nature,” he says, “to want to link ourselves to this story.”