The BBC has an interesting update on the Hartley Violin claim. To recap: Henry Aldridge & Son claims a violin has been authenticated as belonging to Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley and was on his body when recovered. It was given to his fiancee where it remained until she died. It was then donated to the Salvation Army with its Titanic connection mentioned. Then it was given to the mother of the current owner (unidentified at this point) who contacted the auctioneer to have it authenticated (which took seven years).
Skepticism was quick in coming. Karen Kamuda of Titanic Historical Society has questioned the authenticity pointing out no such violin is listed in the official inventory of items found. Tracey Beare of Belfast Titanic Society thinks the violin is Hartley’s but not the one used on Titanic. Titanic author Daniel Butler went further and accuses the auctioneer of fraud and got violin experts to render an opinion. You can read the blog entry about that here.
Aldridge refutes all of those claims and says there are explanations for each of them.
1. Inventory Issue: Violin Not Listed In Official Papers of Items Found On Body
Aldridge: “Larger items of luggage were frequently not recorded but small effects like watches were.” (BBC, 5 April 2013)
I have no idea whether this is correct or not, but one would have to go back through the documents to determine how they did handle luggage. What Aldridge is referring to are those things found on the body, i.e watches, notes, rings and other personal effects. Such things,when found,would be returned to relatives or loved ones.
The problem is Aldridge claims the violin was inside a leather bag strapped to Hartley’s body which floated upright on a cork and linen lifejacket for ten days. If that is true, then they could not have missed the bag and its contents. It would have been opened and inspected, and noted somewhere. Finding a bag strapped to a dead man’s body and not opening to inspect and inventory? That is rather hard to believe. One possibility is that the bag was found floating but not to a body but possibly on something else (a deck chair perhaps) or just by itself. Then it might be brought back and left for the authorities to examine. If this is true, it might explain why no official record of it exists with his body. It was not found on him but perhaps is buried in paperwork. So when Maria Robinson identified it in Nova Scotia, they gave it to her and hence why no official record exists.
Of course the other possibility is that no violin was found at all and thus the one at issue, while owned by Hartley, was not on Titanic.
2. Salt Water Issue
The claim: A violin immersed in salt water gets heavily damaged and comes apart.
Aldridge: The violin was inside a nearly waterproof leather bag strapped to Hartley’s body which floated upright for ten days. (BBC, 5 April 2013)
Assuming it was in a leather bag that floated upright on Hartley’s lifejacket, there are some things to be considered. Even in a bag, it would not entirely protect it from the cold temperatures nor moisture. We have to assume during that time waves passed over the body and presumably the leather case strapped to the body. At some point, the body would be submerged temporarily. The water stain on the violin could have come from this.
There is a way to test this though is Mythbusters style. You set up a tank to simulate the wave action of the North Atlantic and have the same salinity (salt) level in it. Also make sure the water matches the colder temperatures for that time of year. They you set up floating dummy with a leather sack and a violin inside (preferably one donated for the cause) along with detection gear to monitor for temperature and moisture level inside the sack. And run for ten days to and see what happens. And then also run another challenge of a violin afloat with a leather container for the same amount of time. My guess is the one inside the leather bag might be less damaged than the one without.
The BBC article does have violin dealer Andrew Hooker (formerly of Sotheby’s) saying that violins have survived seawater immersions in the past. He says that an 18 century Stradivari violin was swept out to sea one day in 1952 and was swept back in the next with no problems being able to be played. Note what is left out. He does not say where that happened (for fact checking) because it may not have been swept out to the deep sea but was lodged nearby on a rock and then swept back in on the next tide. To say it was not damaged is probably not accurate. Hooker does say something interesting to the BBC:
“Mr Hooker examined the Hartley violin in person and says it has been restored since surviving the Titanic disaster.”
Note that key word restored in that sentence. According to The Telegraph article on 14 Mar 2013, the violin has two long cracks on its body opened up by moisture damage. And later we have a letter to the current owner’s mother as to why the Salvation Army music teacher decided to give it away. “….I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.” So it begs the question as to what Mr. Hooker means it was restored.
Perhaps though, even if made playable again, it never sounded good. That would bolster the assertion by one of Butler’s experts that the metal plaque effects the tone and quality of the violin. If so that would support the theory this violin was not one used for public performances.
3. Second Violin Issue
Claim: The violin, while owned by Hartley, was of a lower grade than most performers were used. Likely a gift since the metal inscription would inhibit its tone and overall quality when played.
Aldridge:” Mr Aldridge says that Hartley was a “cafe violinist” not a concert-grade musician, and did not have spare money for extra violins. (BBC, 5 April 2013)
Aldridge does have a point here. Concert grade violins are not cheap but most performers save up to buy the high quality equipment. It sounds better and if treated right, will last a very long time. But if he was smart, and I bet he was, he had a backup. One that in a pinch he could pull out and use. It would be old, perhaps not as good, but would get the job done until he got back his primary (which would be in the shop being repaired). He may have brought it aboard Titanic that voyage and that is what we found. We may never know for sure whether he had two violins or not aboard Titanic. I wonder though if any violins were found in the debris field and recovered. They did find some musical instruments. Perhaps if he did have a second it is there and he kept the one most dear nearest to his heart.
I think we have to at least consider the possibility he had a primary and a backup. And if the metal inscription did effect tonal quality, he may not have used for public performances even if he was a “café violinist.”
Wrapping Things Up
One proof submitted is a diary entry by Maria Robinson dated 19 Jul 1912. It apparently is the transcript of a telegram sent to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia in which she states: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.” The actual telegram has not been found so, at this point, it cannot be ascertained it was sent. It would seem to confirm a violin was returned to her. If that is true, it certainly supports the theory the violin was found but not why it was not recorded. If it was in luggage (the leather bag) found floating, that might explain it. However the silence on the Nova Scotia end is odd. If it was found on his body, it would be noted. If it was found in a leather bag brought ashore, and then identified by Maria Robinson, there would be an entry somewhere. A further check of records might have to be done and perhaps looking into ancillary records that might contain that nugget.
I think it is wise to have a second pair of eyes, independent of Aldridge, go over all the findings and double-check everything. And it also is wise not to underestimate fakery. There have been great fakes in the past that have gotten by experts on the first examination. Aldridge, despite what some might want to believe, would never be part of this. The damage to his reputation and his business would not be worth it. However there are others out there who have no problems creating historical fakes using clever means. Getting an old violin from that period and using all the right things might very well create a fake Hartley violin that would pass muster. After all, if one can make seemingly historical inscriptions on ancient tombs to make them look real, then mocking up an old violin is not so difficult.
Source: ‘Titanic Violin’ Sparks Heated Debate(5 April 2013, BBC)