Reputed "Titanic violin" to be put up for auction

(CBS News) Movies about the Titanic often feature a poignant scene involving the musicians on board. But soon, the real band leader's violin could go up for auction.

CBS News' Charlie D'Agata recently took a look at an extraordinary piece of memorabilia that may -- or may not -- have been on the ship.

The scene has been immortalized in movies like 1958's "A Night to Remember," in which the band played on to calm the Titanic's passengers as chaos and icy waters swept over and sank the so-called "unsinkable" ship. It's a scene later revisited in James Cameron's film version. The story is real by survivors' accounts, and unlike the fictional Jack and Rose, bandmaster Wallace Hartley was a real-life star.

Christian Tennyson-Ekeberg, a historian and author, said Hartley was a bit of a celebrity and was "very well-known in particular circles."

Tennyson-Ekeberg has written the definitive biography of Hartley, probing the facts and fiction surrounding the bandmaster, the band, and the violin that resurfaced in 2006.

It was a gift from Hartley's fiancee, Mariah Robinson. An inscription on a silver plate reads "For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement."

A jobbing musician, Wallace's gig on "the ship of dreams" would be the opportunity of a lifetime, for a lot of reasons, but he only found fame after his final act.

If the violin survived -- the very one Wallace played that night on the deck -- that's music to the ears of leading Titanic auctioneer, Alan Aldridge. "It's the Holy Grail," he said.

The 34-year-old musician's body was found floating in the icy water 10 days after the shipwreck, among 1,500 people who perished.

The story goes that, in the final moments, Wallace used a bag to protect the one thing that he valued most to him, his violin. He strapped the bag around his shoulders, above his lifejacket, in the hope that he and his violin would survive.

Although some personal belongings were noted in the paperwork for "Body #224," initially, there was no mention of a violin among his possessions. But in the days that followed, newspapers reported that Wallace had been found with the instrument. And in her diary, Mariah Robinson thanked Canadian authorities for its return to Britain.

After Mariah Robinson's death in 1939, the violin wound up forgotten, a stowaway in an attic until it was re-discovered.

"I had a funny feeling," Aldridge said, describing the moment he saw the instrument.

But he wasn't the only one with a funny feeling. While few dispute it's Wallace's violin, critics became skeptical it was the one he was playing that fateful night on the Titanic.

Aldridge said, "We then made arrangements with various tests. The first thing we did we contacted forensic science services."

Micro-analysis found evidence of salt water corrosion consistent with wood and the tiny metal screws on the silver plate having been exposed to sea water over time. No signs of a forgery, it's as old as it looks.

Aldridge said he doesn't know how much the violin might be worth. It could fetch millions when it eventually goes up for auction. Aldridge told CBS News a regular violin in this condition would hardly be worth $20, but not this one -- this one that recalls an infamous tragedy and the heroic act of a young man who had a chance to flee, and instead stood and played.

For D'Agata's full report, watch the video in the player above.

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