NEW YORK -- Collectors began sinking thousands of dollars at a sale billed as "the most exceptional assemblage of Titanic material ever to be offered at auction."
In a white tent adjoining the South Street Seaport Museum, auctioneers opened bidding Thursday on hundreds of items linked to the legendary ship, which went down in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, during its maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg. About 1,500 people died. The ship now rests at the bottom of the sea, 2 1/2 miles down.
The lots auctioned by Guernsey's ranged from artifacts salvaged amid flotsam on the night of the disaster to more tangential memorabilia striving for association with the ship and James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film.
The most expensive item sold Thursday - a first-class dinner menu from one of the Titanic's last suppers - fetched $88,500.
Other big-ticket items included a portrait and photograph of the doomed ship's deck that sold for $38,000 and a piece of staircase that brought $23,000. A menu and a signed piece of stationery from the ship sold for $20,000 each.
Paul Burns, vice president of an Orlando, Fla.-based Titanic exhibition, paid $8,500 for a deck chair and $4,750 for a trunk, blouse and purse retrieved from the sunken ship, minus commission.
"I was surprised it went as low as it did," Burns said after making the winning bid for the chair, which was expected to fetch up to $40,000. "It was so low we decided to go for it."
The sale, titled "Titanic and Other Legendary Liners," also offered objects from other storied luxury liners including the Normandie, Olympic, Lusitania and the Andrea Doria.
The opening lot brought $250, minus commission, for a framed advertisement pitching Vinolia Otto toilet soap, a product apparently used on the Titanic, which once boasted "a higher standard of toilet luxury and comfort at sea."
According to Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger, the auction has generated interest from buyers and media around the world.
"In terms of dollar potential, this is not a huge auction for us," he said. "But in terms of public interest, there are few precedents to match it."
The auction also attracted a new generation of collectors.
Adem Potarkovic, who described himself as "almost 11" and "a huge Titanic fan," said he had persuaded his mother to drive him to New York from Indianapolis for the auction. He said that he had watched nine Titanic documentaries in preparation and brought along a reserve of $387 "from birthdays and hard work" with the hope of nailing down a signature from John Jacob Astor, who perished with the ship.
Most of the Titanic artifacts come from the collection of three men who decided to liquidate their individual Titanic holdings.
One of the men, Tony Probst, acquired one of the world's largest Titanic collections after finding inspiration in Cameron's movie. In the first session of the auction, one of his pieces - a brass plaque from the shipbuilder's of the Titanic - fetched $7000, minus commission.
One of the other three collectors, Gary Robinson, said that watching the auction was "like losing a child," but added that he was happy for the excitement and would be starting his collection over.
Also on sale was a postcard sent by postal clerk James Bertram Williamson to a Miss Gladys Copeland, in which he expressed a hope that she would fulfill a promise to kiss him for a souvenir. It was sent from the boat's first stop, Cherbourg, France.
A friend, "wanted me to wait last night for you to fulfill your promise," Williamson wrote. "This is a souvenir of Titanic's maiden voyage." Williamson died in the tragedy.
Associated Press writer Chaka Ferguson contributed to this report.