Belfast Titanic letter fails to sell at Long Island auction

A handwritten letter from John Edward Simpson from on board the Titanic failed to meet its reserve price at Philip Weiss Auctions on March 2 (Photo courtesy of Philip Weiss Auctions)

The bidding started at $27,000. Within 10 seconds, it was at $33,000.

Suddenly silence, no more bids. The auctioneer gave “fair warning” at $33,000, but what he said next drew murmurs from what had all day been a quiet crowd of about 30 bidders.

“It’s going to pass at $33,000; it does not find a home today,” announced Philip Weiss, the auctioneer and owner of Philip Weiss Auctions in Oceanside.

The item in question was a handwritten letter from Titanic assistant surgeon Dr John Edward Simpson to his mother in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The letter was emblazoned with the letterhead “On board R.M.S. Titanic,” and was dated April 11, 1912—just four days before the ship sank on April 15.

The story behind the letter

Simpson is believed to have gone down with the ship. A report in the Belfast Telegraph on Feb. 26 said: “Simpson, 37, the assistant surgeon on board, stood with fellow officers on the deck of the stricken vessel as it went down, resigning themselves to their fate, making no attempt to board the lifeboats and instead calmly helped others to safety.”

Poignantly, the same auction included a letter from another person who witnessed this.

The auction consisted of 530 items, or “lots.” Simpson’s letter was Item 348. It came directly after a typewritten letter, also on Titanic letterhead, written by Charles Hubert Lightoller on May 1, 1912. Lightoller was the second officer on the ship, and he survived the sinking. His letter gives details about Simpson’s death.

“I may say I was practically the last man to speak to Dr. Simpson,” Lightoller’s letter reads. “They were all perfectly calm in the knowledge that they had done their duty and were still assisting by showing a calm and cool exterior to the passengers.”

That letter sold for $14,000.

Simpson’s letter became the subject of an international controversy when his descendants heard about the Long Island auction.

The family, who could not afford to buy the letter back themselves, appealed for a benefactor to purchase the letter and bring it back to Simpson’s native Belfast for public display.

A handwritten letter from John Edward Simpson from on board the Titanic failed to meet its reserve price at Philip Weiss Auctions on March 2 (Photo courtesy of Philip Weiss Auctions)

A handwritten letter from John Edward Simpson from on board the Titanic failed to meet its reserve price at Philip Weiss Auctions on March 2 (Photo courtesy of Philip Weiss Auctions)

Belfast is also the city where the Titanic itself was born. The ship was constructed at Harland and Wolff shipyard in the Northern Ireland capital.

Weiss still expects the Simpson handwritten letter to sell in an “after-sale.” He was contacted by someone in Ireland who could not get the funds together soon enough to purchase the letter before the auction. Weiss speculated that now the buyer may have a chance to bring the letter back to Belfast. The deal could happen over the weekend.

“Who knows, maybe it will end up going back home,” Weiss said.

More on the auction

Bidders in the well-lit Oceanside gallery sipped coffee, ate cookies and occupied themselves with tablets and newspapers while waiting for a chance to bid on whatever items they were targeting. The room had the same quiet tension as an Atlantic City poker table.

Gallery employees placed bids for people who telephoned in. Weiss, the auctioneer, sat behind a computer screen where people could place bids in real-time over the Internet.

Some in the crowd, such as  Brian Merlis, a photo archivist and author of books on local history, were uninterested in the Titanic letters.

“Maybe collectors want them as historical relics; to me they are unattractive memories of a tragic event,” Merlis said.

Simpson’s letter had been expected to fetch more than $50,000.

“Any time a ship has been sunk or goes down, those items carry far more value,” Weiss said. “Titanic is the most well known ship to have gone down.”

Weiss previously auctioned an archive of letters and photographs from a family who survived the Titanic. The archive sold for over $100,000.

As for the Simpson letter, the reserve price, or the minimum the seller would accept (for those of you who have not yet used Ebay), was $34,000. In the end, the letter fell just one bid short of selling.

“A little disappointing,” Weiss said. “The family’s appeal might have scared a few buyers off.”

Weiss has owned his auction gallery for 25 years. The Weiss Gallery sold the stamp that, according to Weiss, holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a U.S. postage stamp at $1.2 million. The stamp was one of three known copies in existence. It was a $.24 stamp with an accidentally inverted depiction of Christopher Columbus issued in the mid-19th century.