By Melissa Gray
(CNN) — The grainy black-and-white photograph shows a pointy iceberg in the middle of a calm sea, with puffy clouds barely visible in the sky. But the simple picture, taken more than a century ago, just may show the most infamous iceberg in history — the one that sank the Titanic.
It was taken by the chief steward of the ocean liner Prinz Adalbert on the morning of April 15, 1912, hours after the RMS Titanic sank following its collision with an iceberg the previous evening. The Titanic had sunk by the time the Prinz Adalbert came along, and the chief steward was unaware what had happened.
The photo has been cited in historical accounts as possibly being of the iceberg the ship hit.
What sets this photograph apart from others that purported to show the famous berg is a note the chief steward wrote to accompany the picture. In it, the steward says he saw red paint “plainly visible” on the iceberg that appeared to have been left by the scraping of a vessel.
The Titanic was on its maiden voyage crossing the Atlantic when it hit the iceberg, carrying just over 2,200 passengers and crew, of whom 1,517 died.
A telling note
The photograph hung for decades on the walls of the law firm representing the Titanic’s owners, White Star Line. The firm closed in 2002, and the four partners of the firm are now putting it up for auction, along with the note, according to the auction house.
Both are being offered by Henry Aldridge & Son auctioneers in Devizes, Great Britain, with a presale estimate of 10-15,000 pounds ($15,400-$23,200). The auction is scheduled for Saturday, October 24.
While impossible to verify, the contemporaneous account from the man who took the picture and the description of the paint he saw lend credibility to the idea that the Titanic’s hull collided with the iceberg in the photograph.
The note reads, “On the day after the sinking of the Titanic, the steamer Prinz Adalbert passes the iceberg shown in this photograph. The Titanic disaster was not yet known by us. On one side red paint was plainly visible, which has the appearance of having been made by the scraping of a vessel on the iceberg. SS Prinz Adalbert Hamburg America Line.”
It is then signed by the chief steward, who wrote his name only as M. Linoenewald, and three crewmen.
Paint on an iceberg?
Experts who study icebergs say it’s certainly possible that red paint could have have been left on the iceberg from a passing ship.
Steve Bruneau, a professor at the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, and who studies icebergs, said paint could certainly be scraped off and crushed into the ice in such a collision. It could stay there a day or more if it was cool enough and out of the water, he said.
Any observation of paint have to be made relatively soon after the accident, said Martin Truffer, a professor with the Glaciers Group at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
When the Titanic struck the iceberg, Truffer said, the ice would have behaved like a rock and it would have been possible for paint to be left behind.
The auction house said the firm representing the Titanic’s owners, Burlingham, Montgomery & Beecher, acquired the 16-by-20-inch photograph not long after the sinking. Another client, Hamburg American Lines, sent the photograph to them when it learned the firm was defending the Titanic’s owners in litigation over the sinking, the auction house said.
Generations of Burlingham’s maritime lawyers saw the photograph on the wall and regarded it as “The Titanic Iceberg.” The photo was even used in the 1955 book “A Night to Remember,” an account of the Titanic disaster, alongside the caption “The Iceberg that sank Titanic?”
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