Riding the wave of ocean liner memorabilia

Rare maple paneling from the second-class library on the HMHS Brittanic achieved $169,071 in May 2019 at Victor Mee Auctions. Photo courtesy of Victor Mee Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Starting in the early 1900s, an ocean liner voyage was the epitome of luxury travel and the standard mode for international travel until airplanes became commonplace. Well-designed and decorated opulently, ocean liners were the playground of the rich and famous. Author Jules Verne described the experience as being aboard a “floating city.”

Collectors today long for souvenirs from those floating palaces – ocean liners like the Titanic, Lusitania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Andrea Doria, Britannic and the Leviathan to name a few – and any artifact, large or small, is highly collectible. Buyers covet menus, postcards, deck plans, silver and china as well as ship furniture from dining tables to deck chairs. Even pieces of crew uniforms are desirable and tell stories of life aboard ocean liners.

Brian Hawley of Luxury Liner Row, based in North Carolina, has been fascinated with ocean liners since he was 8 years old and has been dealing in ocean liner memorabilia for 35 years. “It’s something that I just always loved. It’s super passionate fun, it isn’t even just a hobby,” he said. “It’s almost an addiction like sushi – you just can’t get enough.”

This menu for the final dinner served on the Titanic was used by a table of first-class passengers the evening before the ship struck an iceberg and sank. The menu fetched $95,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Hawley said the ill-fated Titanic is one of the most-collected ocean liners but expands that to the White Star Line in general in terms of collectability. “I kind of call that the Cadillac of ocean liner memorabilia. There is always a lot of interest and a lot of desire. There is something that fascinates people about Titanic and that spills over into collecting other White Star liners, particularly her sister ship Olympic.”

“Titanic brings everyone to the party typically. They’ve seen the movies, the James Cameron movie certainly, but there are a lot of other ocean liners as well that are highly collectible as well and some for different reasons that you might not expect such as the Normandie,” he said.

A pre-sinking postcard of the Titanic, postmarked April 16, 1912. Photo courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The Normandie was launched in 1935 as the largest and quickest passenger ship and she made the Atlantic crossing in 4.14 days, setting a record. “She is a 1930s French ocean liner and represents the highwater mark of Art Deco,” Hawley said. “In addition to being highly sought after by ocean liner collectors, she is also sought after by Art Deco collectors. She is a kind of a crossover.” Travel posters featuring ocean liners also hold crossover appeal with ocean liner collectors competing with poster collectors.

“The ultimate top end, outside certain key Normandie pieces and Titanic pieces, generally speaking, is furniture from the actual ships, for example, Queen Mary chairs or carpets from a famous ocean liner,” Hawley said.

An iconic Art Deco poster by A.M. Cassandre depicting the SS Normandie’s inaugural voyage, 1935, made $20,000 in October 2018 at Poster Auctions International. Photo courtesy of Poster Auctions International and LiveAuctioneers

From Deco to midcentury-style furniture particularly from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, ocean liner furniture is very collectible and can bring high prices, depending on rarity. In the 1930s, Cunard spent lavishly to have its dining chairs made of solid sycamore.

Ocean liner collectibles run the gamut from travel posters, tickets and other ephemera to china and silver. Collectors tend to hone in one type of collectible, he said. There are lots of collectors who swear almost solely by the china and silver. “I have a customer who only collects unused ocean liner postcards and he only wants mint, never posted,” Hawley said. “I have a customer who only wants postcards with a specific postmark on it because he likes it to be associated with the ship’s launch and I have customers who only collect deck plans.”

Three contiguous verre églomisé panels by Jean Dupas, depicting the ‘Rape of Europa,’ taken from the mural in the Grand Salong of the SS Normandie, circa 1934, sold for $18,000 in September 2019 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Vermont-based Nautiques, which specializes in the golden age of ocean liner travel, researches items for historical accuracy and carries a wide range of items to suit all collecting tastes. Among desirable items are dining serving pieces such as a kosher soup tureen from the White Star Line, dated 1911, to an original “dress ring” from the Queen Mary decorated with the ship’s name and the Cunard lions. While it resembles a life preserver, this ring would have only had a ceremonial use.

New collectors will often start with ocean liner ephemera, Hawley said. “Paper is fun and easy. The brochures, the deck plans … it’s not terribly expensive and you can get a collection started that way,” he said, noting there is a wide range in terms of prices for all levels of paper collectors. “For example, there would be an invitation to the launch of the Queen Mary in the ’30s and then there would be an invitation to the launch of the Lusitania that’s going to be significantly more expensive than the one from the ’30s,” he said. “Even though the one from the ’30s is highly sought after, the one from 1906 is going to be much rarer and harder to get so it’s going to go for much more. It’s just a fascinating field.”

A pair of nickel-plated vases designed by Edgar Brandt and George Bastard for the S.S. Normandie, circa 1935, sold at Peachtree & Bennett. Photo courtesy of Peachtree & Bennett and LiveAuctioneers

Ocean liner memorabilia is a quirky hobbyist pursuit and many collectors are passionate about what they collect. Renowned collector Frank Braynard studied the Leviathan for decades and amassed an impressive collection of artifacts relating to the ship, said to be the largest American passenger ship in the 1920s and ’30s. He donated many items to the Smithsonian, which frames its nautical collection.

Personally drawn to cups and saucers, Hawley said these are another common starting point for collectors. “For me personally, there’s nothing that beats a good cup and saucer from your favorite ocean liner or company. It displays well, you don’t need a case and you can just set it out on the bookshelf with your various ship books,” he said. “Even if you don’t do much more than maybe a White Star Line cup and saucer, you can build a conversation around it. People will come in and say, ‘What’s this?’”