A Piano From the Titanic’s Sister Ship Awaits Its Next Audience

This article is part of our Design special section about water as a source of creativity.

During the Titanic’s maiden voyage, musicians played pianos from Steinway & Sons to entertain passengers with waltzes and opera overtures. A twin of one of the ship’s Steinway instruments has been found in northern England, and a new nonprofit organization is gearing up to return it to the limelight.

The gilt-trimmed walnut upright, now at the showroom of Besbrode Pianos in Leeds, was commissioned in 1912 for the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. It was made by the same craftspeople, and in the same style and materials, as its disintegrated counterparts underwater near Newfoundland. But before its provenance trail was traced in the last few years, “Nobody showed the slightest bit of interest in it,” said Melvin Besbrode, the showroom’s owner.

The nonprofit RMS Olympic Steinway Association aims to raise about $125,000 to acquire it and make it publicly accessible. The only other Olympic piano known to survive is a Steinway grand with checkerboard inlays, which the musician Bill Wyman sold through Sotheby’s in 1994 for about $38,000. Its current location is a mystery. “No one can hear it, no one can see it, and we don’t want that to happen again,” said Patrick Cornelius Vida, an Austrian musician who is the association’s president.

Mr. Vida has made pilgrimages to Besbrode Pianos to bask in the upright’s aura and used it for filmed performances of 1910s music. “It’s stayed within my soul, within my memory,” he said. “It’s a grand old lady who’s young at heart.”

The association has made a documentary, explaining that the piano’s “timber, character and tonal quality” are nearly identical to what Titanic passengers heard. When the Besbrode piano was in use for decades aboard the Olympic (which was scrapped in 1935), the passengers included Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Mr. Besbrode acquired the piano in 2008 from a dealer in Ireland, when nothing was known about its globe-trotting past; it had somehow ended up in a family home near Cork. In 2021, he sold it to André Maiwald, a piano dealer in northwest Germany. It served as a prop in the German castle where Pablo Larrain’s 2021 movie “Spencer,” a fictional portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, was filmed.

Mr. Maiwald started digging deeper into the instrument’s back story partly because of its unusual woodwork. Bands of crashing ocean waves, carved along its top and legs, gave him a feeling: “There’s something special about this piano.”

The instrument bore Steinway’s serial number 157550, and company records and historic photos confirmed that it was sent aboard the Olympic. Ghosts of screw holes in the piano’s sides suggest how it was anchored to the ocean liner’s walls.

During or after its maritime service, its original gilding and carvings of bellflowers were stripped away. The design drawings, produced by a London interior decorating firm, Aldam Heaton & Company, which also outfitted the Titanic, turned up in the collection of Daniel Klistorner, an expert on the Titanic and other ocean liners. Mr. Maiwald commissioned new gilding and floral embellishments from Margret Link, a German artist.

Anthony Gilroy, a vice president at Steinway, said that it was unknown whether other Olympic pianos were tucked away in obscurity. As ocean liner travel went out of fashion, he said, some seagoing instruments’ origins were likely forgotten: “The glow of fame would have subsided.”

Andrew Aldridge, an expert on memorabilia from the Titanic and other ocean liners who runs the Henry Aldridge & Son auction house in England, described Mr. Maiwald’s Olympic upright as “a fabulous piece of history” deserving preservation.

“It’s a tangible link to its sister piano at the bottom of the ocean,” he said.

He added, however, that the asking price of about $125,000 is likely “an optimistic number.” His high auction estimate for it would be in the $50,000 range.

Mr. Besbrode said he hoped that the RMS Olympic Steinway Association could persuade a museum to take on the instrument. For the time being, he is enjoying having a newly identified star on his premises: “It now has its history with it.”

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