The violin thought to have belonged to Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster of the group of players who famously played on as the lifeboats of RMS Titanic were being lowered into the sea, has sold at auction in Wiltshire for £900,000.

The sale sets a new world record for the highest price fetched by a piece of Titanic memorabilia. Auctioneer Alan Aldridge set a guide price of £300,000 and started the bidding for the violin at £50 but after a few minutes the bids had passed £100,000. The instrument was sold to a phone buyer after ten minutes.

Specialist Titanic auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Son spent seven years authenticating the instrument before finally declaring it genuine in March following an examination by Bath-based dealer Andrew Hooker. The process included examinations by violin experts and scientists, including the Home Office Forensic Science Service. In May this year the violin underwent hospital CT scans to determine its age and condition, the results of which showed that the instrument had been damaged and restored.

The evidence unearthed by the auctioneers tells a fascinating story of the instrument’s provenance and survival and supports the known facts about the violin, which was given to Hartley by his fiancée, Maria Robinson, in 1910. It is believed that the violin was found strapped to the body of Hartley, who was discovered in the sea wearing a life jacket on 25 April, ten days after the sinking. It purportedly survived the salt water because it was contained within the leather case bearing the inscription, W. H. H (Wallace Henry Hartley). The bag was included in the sale of the violin. The violin wears a silver plate on the tailpiece inscribed with the words: ‘For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.’

Andrew Aldridge said he had expected the violin to exceed expectations: ‘Due to the phenomenal level of interest from both Titanic and violin collectors the final figure did not surprise me. It was exceptional price for an exceptional item.

‘The violin is important due to the fact it is so iconic and represents the selfless act of the musicians on Titanic who played until the end.’

Not everyone is convinced of the violin’s authenticity. In an experiment posted on the website Inside the Arts, Ken Amundson of Amundson Violin in Minnesota, US, tested whether the violin or its case could have survived intact after being submerged in salt water for ten days by immersing a violin inside a case overnight in 40 degree sea salt water inside a barrel. The results of the experiment can be seen here.  

The violin has been on exhibition since May at Titanic Branson and Titanic Pigeon Forge in the US, the largest Titanic museums in the world, and later at Titanic Belfast. It also went on display in Hartley's hometown of Dewsbury, Yorkshire, for one day last week, ahead of its sale.

In April a letter written by Titanic violinist and bandleader Wallace Hartley sold for £93,000.

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All images courtesy BMI Ridgeway Hospital, Swindon