Controversial ‘Titanic’ prop fetches over $700,000 at auction

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Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet may have played the protagonists of Titanicbut many fans of the 1997 blockbuster view an ornate piece of driftwood as the hero of the film.

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It was atop that wood panel (often mistaken for a door) that the fictional Rose promised to Jack “I’ll never let go,” before clinging on for dear life as she – spoiler alert – watched her frozen beau sink into the ocean while she floated to survival.

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Last week, that bit of Hollywood history resurfaced at a Dallas-based auction where it beat out Harrison Ford’s signature bullwhip from the Indiana Jones franchise ($525,000) and the ax Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance wielded in The Shining ($125,000) as the most expensive item in a four-day auction of memorabilia being sold by Planet Hollywood.

The winning bid for the balsa wood prop dubbed “hero floating wood panel”: $718,750.

Heritage Auctions, which handles an array of big-ticket collectibles, said in a statement that the Treasures From Planet Hollywood event was its most successful auction of cinema props, bringing in a total of $15.68 million; it ranks among the most lucrative auctions of Hollywood memorabilia in industry history.

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“The extraordinary success of this auction proves what I’ve known all along: The interest in and appetite for modern-movie props and costumes – all of which were once displayed in Planet Hollywood’s worldwide or part of their legendary archives – is profound, deep and insatiable,” Heritage Auctions Executive Vice President Joe Maddalena said in a statement.

Bidding on the prop opened at $60,000, and within six minutes topped $700,000 as the auctioneer goosed potential bidders with reminders about the prop’s importance to the plot.

“This is it, this is the goodbye,” the auctioneer said. “Before this scene it was an adventurous love story! Now it becomes the tragic love story ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

In the crucial and much-dissected scene, the Rose and Jack characters grab the floating debris and try to hoist themselves on top before it flips over. Then Jack helps Rose atop the panel while he floats in the water, hanging on to the edge.

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The polarizing scene has prompted fans over the years to theorize that the panel was large enough to fit both Rose and Jack and that DiCaprio’s character may have lived if only Rose had made room.

Director James Cameron tried to put the criticism to rest, telling the Daily Beast in 2017: “Look, it’s very, very simple: you read page 147 of the script and it says, ‘Jack gets off the board and gives his place to her so that she can survive.’”

Cameron revisited the controversy several times over the years, even appearing on “MythBusters,” where the show’s hosts did an experiment to prove if the characters tied Rose’s life jacket underneath the door for more buoyancy and then propped their bodies more upright on the board, both would’ve lived.

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“The script says Jack dies. He has to die,” Cameron said in the episode. “So maybe we screwed up, and the board should’ve been a little tiny bit smaller, but the dude’s going down.”

Cameron’s remarks did little to quiet the internet chatter, so in 2023, he tried to put the issue to rest for good by commissioning a study to definitively prove that only one of the characters could have survived.

In an interview with the Toronto SunCameron detailed a study that used stunt people and hypothermia experts to re-create the film’s scene – an experiment timed to the release of a remastered version of the film.

For all the interest the panel has inspired from a fictional story, the prop itself is based on a real-life Titanic artifact. Cameron had the item designed to look like original paneling after visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, according to the Canadian museum’s website. Researchers believe the wood was from an oak panel that surrounded the door frame above the Titanic’s first-class lounge entrance.

What prompted the winning bidder to pay more than $700,000 for a balsa wood prop remains a mystery. The winner, who was present at Heritage’s Dallas headquarters for the auction, was addressed by the auctioneer only as “Mr. Green.”

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