"And the band played on..."
That well-known phrase is forever linked to the 1912 sinking of the Titanic as the band aboard the ill-fated ship played as passengers boarded the lifeboats.
Believe it or not a million-dollar artifact from that band that's survived for over a century will be on display at the Titanic Museum in Branson from February 8-June 15.
The museum is a reproduction of both the inside and outside of the legendary British passenger liner that sank in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912 after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic Ocean. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard more than 1,500 died, making it one of the deadliest peacetime commercial marine disasters.
The Titanic museum in Branson and its sister-facility in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. have more than 400 artifacts from the actual ship but this one about to go on display in Branson is the most valuable and iconic.
"The most important piece of Titanic memorabilia in existence," said Andrew Aldridge of the Aldridge Auction Home in Great Britain, the firm that represents the anonymous owner of the piece.
"For us to have it now is incredible," added Paul Burns, the curator at the Branson Titanic Museum. "We're extremely lucky."
So what is it?
It's the actual violin played by bandleader Wallace Henry Hartley as his eight-piece band stood on the deck of the Titanic serenading passengers with hymns to try and calm them during the chaotic moments as they jumped on the lifeboats.
The band has become as much a part of the Titanic lore as the iceberg itself, recognized for their heroic gesture in the face of certain death. They've been an important part of any story of the Titanic's sad recounting, from books to movies, and the violin is an amazing survivor of that horrible night.
"If this violin could talk what incredible stories it could tell," Burns said.
Hartley, the bandleader who owned the violin, did not survive the sinking. His body was recovered two weeks after the disaster with a music case strapped to his body.
That case, which is also still around, is credited with why the violin was able to endure the cold, wet conditions and remain intact.
"When Wallace went into the water he had a valise, a big leather bag, and the violin was held within that valise," Aldridge explained. "That kept most of the water off it."
"Also the life preserver (Hartley was wearing) would have allowed the person's body to be two-thirds out of the water," Burns said of the Titanic's flotation devices. "So the violin really set out of the water inside the leather case."
Over the next century the violin went from Wallace's fiancée to the Salvation Army to a music teacher to her student before the current anonymous owner bought it for the $1.7 million price tag.
The violin's authentication came from forensic testing that proved it had been in the waters of the North Atlantic and the presence of a metal plate on the front of the violin.
"On the fishplate (a flat piece of metal) it says, 'To Wallace on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria,'" Aldridge said. "And Maria Robinson was Wallace's fiancée."
As you would expect the violin is handled like a baby, kept in a climate-controlled environment on a specially-made acrillic stand.
"When we place it on the stand we will take the weight completely off the violin so it will not rest on its own weight," Burns said in explaining that the wood portion of the violin is the most critical part to keep from aging.
Mary Kellogg, the co-owner and COO of the Titanic Museum, estimates that the violin is worth even more now since it is a one-of-a-kind item, and it's strange when you consider that this small musical instrument is worth much more than the million-dollar Grand Staircase that the museum recreated from the original Titanic that includes gold railings and an ornate ceiling and chandelier.
But the real reason the violin is the most valuable of all the Titanic artifacts is not what it is, but what it represents.
It's all that's left of a tragic sacrifice by eight men.
"The most selfless act you can imagine," Aldridge said of their heroics. "They're giving their life to comfort and soothe those around them."
"This represents all that," Burns said, pointing to the violin. "It's the most precious. What it represents, the icon, the human interest side of this, is the key to Titanic living on."
The violin will be on display in Branson from February 8-June 15. The museum is open daily at 9 a.m. and reservations are strongly suggested, especially during spring break times.