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Collectibles: Anchor Man

A life preserver from the Caronia, the first of several Cunard ships to bear that name, hangs near the front door of Cobwebs.

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The next best thing to exploring the wreck of Titanic might be visiting Peter Boyd-Smith’s antiques shop, Cobwebs, in Southampton, England. Titanic items remain especially popular with his clients. He recently sold a chair that might have come from a restaurant on the doomed ocean liner. He cannot guarantee its provenance because Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, had similar furnishings. But the Jacobean-style oak chair was, he says, “a wreck, in pieces,” when he acquired it in the 1970s, and its condition indicated its source. Boyd-Smith knows that White Star, the company that owned and operated Titanic, removed broken furniture from the ship in the week before it departed Southampton on its first and final voyage. He had the chair refurbished and kept it in his office until a Swedish company offered him a significant sum for it earlier this year. (He will not disclose the amount.)

Titanic is not the only ocean liner represented in Boyd-Smith’s shop. A cracked porthole from the wreck of RMS Lusitania, which a German submarine torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1915, lies on the floor, propped against a display case. A large bell from RMS Majestic sits on a small table. That ocean liner has a convoluted history: Launched by Germany in June 1914 as SS Bismarck, it was given to the British as compensation for its World War I losses, and subsequently sailed with the White Star Line from 1922 to 1934. A life preserver from RMS Caronia, a Cunard ocean liner that carried passengers between Liverpool, England, and New York in the early 20th century, hangs near the entrance. An adjacent storefront houses oversize rarities: the rusted cargo door of the Lusitania and several wood-framed windows from the first-class lounge of Olympic. Boyd-Smith did little searching to find these treasures; many of their owners found him. “Ninety-five percent of my stock,” he says, “walks in through the front door.”

 

Boyd-Smith did not intend to specialize in ocean liner memorabilia when he opened his shop 32 years ago, but when customers kept inquiring about items from these vessels, he followed the prevailing winds. Boyd-Smith has a strong relationship with Cunard, the 167-year-old company that owns and operates Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2. Both vessels display his wares, and he often serves as a lecturer on Cunard sailings. Boyd-Smith was aboard the QE2 in June when Cunard announced that it had sold the 40-year-old ship to the government of Dubai, which will convert it into a floating hotel that will be docked at the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island. “My first reaction was to laugh. I literally didn’t believe it,” he says. “I love the QE2, and I’ll miss it terribly. At least it’s not going to be broken up.”

If the QE2 were to be dismantled, people would know where to find at least some of its parts. The production team for the 1997 film Titanic relied on Boyd-Smith’s inventory—studying items from his gallery and his private collection—to ensure that their depictions of the ship’s fittings and interiors were accurate. Boyd-Smith was pleased with the sets and many of the period details, but he gives the movie a mixed review. “It’s a shame that it’s such an appalling script,” he says. “And the love scene is absolute rubbish. There is no way that a first-class and a third-class passenger would ever meet, never mind have an affair. But [director James Cameron] showed the ship, and he did a good job with that.” 

Cobwebs, +44.23.80227458, www­.cobwebs.uk.com

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