All at sea; Ocean liner memorabilia may be riding a wave of popularity

LONDON – Although Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II is expected to finish her days as a hotel in Dubai next year, our taste for sailing to exotic places remains as strong as ever. Collectors of ocean-liner memorabilia are reminded of the glory days, when passenger ships sailed around the globe with wealthy voyagers enjoying a luxurious lifestyle.

Our love affair with cruising has meant that collectibles are becoming increasingly popular and good ones hard to find. Items can be tastefully displayed including wall-mount brass ships clocks, framed shipping line posters, post cards, menus, models, newspapers 1930s brochure cover Normandie liner.jpgannouncing major events, and items of china. They can be incorporated into almost any modern interior design. Because they were made for use at sea, they were beautifully fashioned in mahogany, brass and copper.

1930s brochure cover for the Normandie.

When the centenary of the Titanic sinking comes in 2012, it will serve to renew public fascination with the event. With a shortage of genuine artifacts, memorabilia and commemorative items from more recent times that evoke the catastrophe will likely increase in value.

In an era before budget airlines, to be a first-class passenger aboard a luxury liner seems like a fairytale lifestyle that we can only dream of today. Dining in the first-class restaurant is an event that we would remember always. The table would be set with fresh flowers and bowls of fruit. A White Star line menu card would be at each place, and buttonhole carnation for each gentleman. The music would be Palm Court style, and each gentleman would be introduced in a reception room to the lady he would take down to dinner. Aperitifs would be served along with an exquisite hors d’oeuvre.

The bugler on board would call the passengers to dinner with: “The Roast Beef of Old England.” Gentlemen would then observe the shipboard etiquette by seating their lady to the right. A prime duty would be to engage in conversation with her, although it was permissible to converse with the lady on your left if one’s partner was distracted elsewhere.

First-class passenger Mrs. Walter Douglas later wrote: “We dined the last night in the Ritz restaurant. It was the last word in luxury. The tables were gay with pink roses and white daisies, the women in their beautiful shimmering gowns of satin and silk, the men immaculate and well groomed.

“The stringed orchestra playing music from Puccini and Tchaikowsky. The food was superb: caviar, lobster, quail from Egypt, plover’s eggs and hothouse grapes, and fresh peaches. The night was cold and clear, the sea was like glass,” she added.

It is not surprising that interest in the Titanic and the White Star shipping line has far exceeded the amount of material offered for sale. Enthusiasts are fully aware that collectibles – including china, utensils and tickets – have all be reproduced both in the U.K. and the U.S. over the years.

The value of Titanic memorabilia will depend upon how unusual the items are, their artistic merit and the proximity to the places associated with the tragedy, i.e. Southampton, Belfast and New York. The centenary in April 2012 is expected to generate more items, including limited editions. Models of the Titanic are always in demand, but they have to be well made and have plenty of detail. Hastily made or poorly constructed models will not have much value.

(The closest I ever came the actual event was to attend the same wireless college in south London in the early 1950s, where the two wireless operators, John Phillips and Harold Bride, trained. Phillips body was never recovered, but Bride survived the disaster. Photographs of both men used to hang in the hallway at the British School of Telegraphy for many years and were held in the highest respect by all the students.)

Luxury sea travel reached its height in the 1930s when sailing from Europe to Asia meant requesting “port out, starboard home” cabins (acronym “posh”) to avoid strong porthole sunlight going out and returning home. There were always large numbers of bellboys and stewards to carry your luggage. The first “super liner” built after World War I was the Ile-de-France, launched in 1926. Her interior design was totally new. Whereas predecessors were designed to evoke the grand style on shore, such as Baroque or Egyptian, she was designed for the 20th century in Art Deco.

Competition between the British and French ships to be the fastest across the Atlantic was fierce. The Normandie regained the Blue Riband in 1937 with a run of three days, 22 hours and seven minutes. But Cunard’s Queen Mary took the pennant in August 1938, and for 15 years it remained in British hands. The Queen Mary’s record time was three days, 20 hours and 40 minutes.

Dubai is now becoming a major Middle Eastern location for art and antiques fairs. In February 2008, Art Deco dealer Maison Gerard located from New York will be featuring painted glass panels made by Jean Dupas in 1934 for the liner Normandie at the Art and Antiques Dubai event.

Care should be taken when buying memorabilia. Many printed items such as postcards, boarding passes, passenger lists and menus offered today are copies, passed off as originals. Postcards of the Titanic sailing are in fact pictures of her sister ship, the Olympic. When looking at White Star Line items, it should be remembered that for many years after the Titanic disaster, the White Star Line continued as a company. It was only in 1934 that it merged with Cunard, to become Cunard-White Star Ltd.

Collectors with an eye to the future should consider the Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II while prices are still relatively low. A menu from the Queen Elizabeth II maiden voyage in 1969 can still be bought for around $15-$20. And launch items from the Queen Mary II, which undertook her maiden voyage in January 2004, are worth considering. One collector paid $114 for a commemorative cut-glass goblet from the Queen Mary II’s maiden voyage. He says that he could sell it for $475 because of its quality and provenance. Made by Waterford Crystal, there are only 2,000 in existence.

Whether your interest is in liners or cruise ships, it is worthwhile remembering that the longer a vessel is in service, the more famous it becomes, and the more popular the memorabilia. Once the ship is decommissioned, the value of mementoes usually increases. But discretion should be exercised when buying memorabilia. Go for quality rather than quantity. Bon voyage!