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Treasures of the High Seas: Ocean Liner Memorabilia

Ship

    On a June evening last year, a trove of sea life came to the auction block at Christie's at Rockefeller Plaza. Not shrimp and plankton, mind you, but rarer things. Like an oyster plate from the fabled SS Normandie, designed by Suzanne Lalique circa 1935. A life ring from the SS Liberte.

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    And a silver-plated duck press (above) made for the French Line that had all of the insolence of a Duchamp sculpture.

    There were posters by A.M. Cassandre that depicted the Normandie, a pair of mid-century modern stools from the pool bar of the SS Norway, and a travel agent's model of the RMS Caronia, circa 1950.

Titanic

    But most remarkable of all was a tattered, stained ("Perhaps with oil? Or blood?," speculated Christie's experts) life jacket (above) from the RMS Titanic. Anything from the Titanic is golden, so to speak, and this battered survivor of canvas and cork was akin to a piece of the true cross. When the gavel fell, it went for $68,500.

    The mania for collecting every last thing connected to the great ocean liners is on the ascendency. Credit the romance of the high life at sea, those days of the glamorous crossings from 1900 to 1960, of ships that proudly carried their country's flag, as well as some of the keenest design of the day. Some collectors go after a passenger list that bears their great grandparents' names. For others, it's a chance to buy a pair of deck chairs from a 1930's vessel, objects that tap into a kind of Charles Ryder and Julia Mottram glamour from "Brideshead Revisited," dapper in dress and stylish in manner as they crossed the Atlantic.

    The heyday of the great liners marked a unique moment in the world of travel, when the peculiar alchemy of engineers, artists and designers came together to create some of the most beautiful objects of transportation imaginable. You could, for example, sail from New York City to Southampton surrounded by the work of Jean Dupas and Rene Lalique, sleep in sumptuous staterooms and linger in lavish dining rooms. Rooms that had more in common with the Palm Court of the old Plaza Hotel or the public rooms of the Savoy Hotel in London than they did with a mere ship. In the words of maritime historian, John Maxtone Graham, "it was the only way to cross."

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    Nostalgia helps fuel this boom. With exception of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, all of the bona fide ocean liners are long gone. They were sunk or destroyed during the Second World War, sold for scrap, put in mothballs or cut up on a beach in India. In their stead are cruise ships, which seem a lot less romantic by comparison. 

    "Oceans liners died a slow and agonizing death with the advent of air travel," notes Gary Garland, of Swann Galleries, "and ship travel turned from transportation to vacation."

    Ocean liners were designed to get you from point A to point B, after all, and today's cruise ships offer a meandering, artificial itinerary designed to keep you buying drinks and gambling. Only the QM 2 continues to ply the waters between New York and Southampton, on a five-day crossing that is a byword for civilized leisure, attracting such regulars as David Bowie. It's the last hurrah of a grand way of travel.

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    What shows up today at auction are the flotsam and jetsam of the great ocean liners, in the way of posters, deck chairs, tableware and other ephemera. These object are both hotly collected and part of a still emerging field. Swann Galleries just held it's second sale of ocean liner memorabilia while Christie's last sale was its fifth. It included four Thonet chairs, circa 1959, from the SS Victoria. A list of second class passengers from the RMS Titanic. And a pair of deck chairs from the RMS Queen Elizabeth.

    "Collectors come at it from many different angles," says Garland, who runs Swann's sale. "People literally collect anything to do with ocean liners, from brochures and menus to posters and any piece and part of the ship."

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     That includes (but is not limited to) dinner services, serving pieces, wall panels, drapery, lounge chairs and chandeliers. Interior decorators seek out furniture and objets. These ships were floating hotels, carefully and heavily furnished to a degree that was truly theatrical.

    "The Italian and North German lines used some of the best interior designers of the day,"explains Greg Dietrich, Christie's ocean liner specialist. "Those designers wanted their pieces to be on these ships to showcase their work. Well-to-do passengers would see it and use it, and that could start a real trend."

    Today, Dietrich says, "we have a younger generation of collector moving in, allured by design and the romance. We have wealthy young collectors with a yacht who are decorating it with ephemera, dishes, serving pieces and even deck signs from a vintage ship. We have collectors with summer homes on the Vineyard or Nantucket who want to furnish their house."

    And there are a handful of ships that are in the greatest demand, because of their style and history. They include the SS France, the Normandie and SS United States. Provenance from one of these ships obviously gives your artifact a lot more heft.

    "On the French line," says Dietrich, " there was collaborative design. On the interiors of the Normandie, you had the work of Christofle, Rene Lalique and Jean Dupas. They used the same Christofle ice buckets in third class that they did in first."

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     The SS United States was a showcase for 1950's furniture made from aluminum (above), with designs that Dietrich refers to as "mid-ship century modern."

    If there's a lingering mystery in the world of ocean liner collecting, it's why the Americans are mad for it while the Brits are decidedly cooler.

    "No rhyme or reason," says Dietrich, noting that Stephen Lash, chairman of Christie's America, is a passionate collector of ocean liner memorabilia. "Maybe it's because here in New York, you can still see the ships docked on the West Side. You don't see that in London."

    But perhaps it's because all we have left are flying cattle cars with onerous fees for baggage, drinks and window seats. So it's little wonder that some of us look back with fondness to time when ocean travel seemed like glamour personified.

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