A shipwreck’s discovery could increase the demand for Arctic and Antarctic exploration relics.
The discovery in September of the HMS Erebus under the Arctic waters of the Queen Maud Gulf may eventually benefit Canada’s national interests. But in the short run, it almost certainly added to the value of an auction lot that sold a month later at Christie’s in London.
Erebus was one of two ships in the Franklin expedition, which set out from England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, the sailing route through the Arctic that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Erebus and the expedition’s other ship, Terror, became stranded in the ice about 1,200 miles northwest of Toronto and were eventually abandoned by their crews. None of the 129 men in the expedition survived.
The Canadian government began funding a search for the ships in 2008, believing that their discovery would reinforce the country’s claim of sovereignty over large portions of the Arctic, including the increasingly navigable Northwest Passage. That claim is disputed by the United States and other countries. The assertion goes that the Franklin expedition and other British explorations enabled England to claim ownership of the region, and that England passed on this ownership to Canada when the latter gained its independence.
Obtaining certain possession of a relic from the Franklin expedition was a simpler process. Christie’s Travel, Science and Natural History auction in October included a silver medal that was awarded posthumously in 1857 to John Irving, who served as third officer aboard Terror. Irving’s remains were the first confirmed to belong to a member of the Franklin expedition. The medal sold for more than $60,000, which was well above its presale estimate of $32,000 to $48,000. It is reasonable to assume that the discovery of Erebus influenced the bidding.
The market for Arctic and Antarctic exploration material first took off in the mid-1990s, when Christie’s London began conducting sales featuring items consigned by the descendants of the legendary British explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. “It ranges from someone’s snow goggles to ration bags to cameras they brought back to photographs to lumps of volcanic rock from Mount Erebus [the world’s southernmost active volcano],” says Nicholas Lambourn, head of Christie’s Topographical Pictures department.
Although Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole and may have been the first person to reach the North Pole (the evidence is not conclusive), materials associated with his expeditions are generally not as valuable as items tied to Scott and Shackleton. “Amundsen’s works are not in English,” says Matthew Haley, “so that’s going to be a depressive factor.” Haley is the head of the department of books, maps, and manuscripts at Bonhams, which will conduct a Travel and Exploration sale on December 3 in London that is slated to include Shackleton material.
Over the years, exploration-themed auctions have included items ranging from the breathtaking—a set of three albums of contact prints shot by Herbert George Ponting of Scott’s Antarctic expedition sold at Christie’s London in 2010 for more than $265,000—to the bizarre. A 2001 Christie’s sale included a biscuit that Shackleton carried home from his Endurance odyssey in a cigarette tin. It sold for more than $11,000.