Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sold... to the filthy rich bidder

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OK, ladies and gentlemen, our next item up for bids is a cracked, water-damaged violin that has only two strings and is totally unplayable.

We have an opening bid of $80... Do I hear $1 million? Going once.... Going twice.... SOLD to the anonymous collector bidding by telephone for a record $1.7 million!

Hard to believe? Well, give your gavel a shake, because that's precisely what happened last Saturday at U.K. auction house Henry Aldridge and Son when the violin famously played by the Titanic's bandmaster as the ship sank on its maiden voyage went on the block.


The instrument is said to have belonged to Wallace Hartley, whose band -- according to legend and the epic film Titanic -- played the hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee to calm passengers climbing into lifeboats as the doomed ship sank beneath the icy waves in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg.

More than a week after the mighty ship sank -- the heroic band was among the 1,500 victims -- a search team reportedly found the violin still strapped to Hartley's body. In 2006, it reappeared in an attic in Yorkshire.

The $1.7-million bid is a record for a Titanic artifact, topping the $365,000 (Cdn) paid in 2011 for a plan of the doomed vessel. Here's how it stacks up against five of the priciest -- and oddest -- auction items of all time:



THE TOP BID: $15,894,000


THE BOTTOM LINE: Talk about a "Titanic" price tag. The online auction house for fine instruments, Tarisio, sold the legendary "Lady Blunt" Stradivarius violin of 1721 for a world-record $15.9 million at a June 20, 2011, auction. That's four times the previous auction record for a violin made by Antonio Stradivari, the famous Italian craftsman. It was bought by an anonymous bidder, with all the proceeds going to help Japanese victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Of the 600 Stradivari instruments still in existence, the "Lady Blunt" is in the most pure condition. It was previously auctioned in 1971 by Sotheby's for $140,000, a record at the time. In 2007, a 250-year-old violin from Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarnieri, grandson of one of Stradivari's apprentices, went for $3.9 million.


111THE TOP BID: $115,000


THE BOTTOM LINE: No surprise that, in the age of social media, Elvis's hair sold online for a hunk, a hunk of burning cash. According to, strands from the King's pompadour, collected by his personal barber, Homer "Gill" Gilleland, are the priciest hair ever sold at auction, fetching $115,120 from an anonymous bidder in an online auction on Nov. 15, 2002. The locks (eight centimetres in diameter) were accompanied by letters of authenticity. It reportedly brought in more than spare hair from John Lennon ($48,000), John F. Kennedy ($3,000) and Beethoven ($7,300) combined. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis's hair has left the building.



THE TOP BID: $1,267,500


THE BOTTOM LINE: The hottest place in the world on May 19, 1962, was U.S. President John F. Kennedy's birthday celebration. That's when Marilyn, history's most famous blond bombshell, serenaded JFK with a sultry birthday song while wearing a flesh-coloured gown so curve-hugging that, as legend has it, she was sewn into it and wore nothing underneath. According to, the history-making frock was bought at auction in 1999 for $1,267,500 by Manhattan-based collectible company Gotta Have It. Company president Robert Shargen said it was a steal, adding he would have paid twice that amount. Some definitely like it hot.


111Pink Diamond

THE TOP BID: $45.6 million


The bottom line:

Move over. Pink Panther, this 24.78-carat pink stone brought a king's fortune when it was sold for a world-record price through Sotheby's in Geneva on Nov. 16, 2010. It was snapped up over the phone by British billionaire jeweller Laurence Graff, the so-called "King of Bling," who boasted he bought the gem for himself and unashamedly named it the "Graff Pink." It was sold by a private collector and hadn't been on the open market since it was bought from celebrity jeweller Harry Winston 60 years earlier. In 2008, Graff paid $24.3 million for the 17th-century "Wittelsbach Blue Diamond," an auction record for a gem at the time.



THE TOP BID: $119,922,500


THE BOTTOM LINE: Auction history was made on May 2, 2012, in New York when Sotheby's sold Edvard Munch's iconic 1895 pastel masterpiece The Scream for almost $120 million, a world record for any work of art at auction. The iconic portrait of a terrified man holding his head and screaming under a blood-red sky is one of the most instantly recognizable images in history, arguably second only to the Mona Lisa. Sotheby's notes there were at least eight bidders, but it ended with a frantic 12-minute war between two unidentified phone buyers. Who won? The Scream went to art-loving New York billionaire Leon Black.


THE FINAL BID: We are not billionaires, but we think paying $120 million for anything would be a Titanic disaster. When Black's wife saw his Visa bill, we'll bet there was more than one scream in the house.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 D2


Updated on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 2:09 PM CDT: Fixed headline

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