Sumptuous Rubaiyat lost on Titanic.
The sumptuously bound copy of the English translation of the Rubaiyyat by Edward FitzGerald had been bought by an American at a London auction two weeks before the Titanic sailed on its maiden voyage in 1912. It was being shipped to the buyer across the Atlantic.
The wreckage of the Titanic was found on the ocean floor in 1985 and parts of it have been searched by robot submarines. But the Rubaiyyat is not among the cargo thus far located.
What is known about the bejeweled edition comes primarily from its bookbinder and from an article in The New York Times of April 21, 1912.
In 1909, the British bookbinding firm of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was commissioned to re-bind an American edition of FitzGerald's Rubaiyyat. The bookbinding firm, which is still in business, says of the project: "The book was undoubtedly the most ambitious bookbinding ever undertaken by any bookbinder at any period in history. It boasted over a thousand precious and semi-precious jewels, thousands of separate leather onlays and it took the firm two years of continuous work to finish."
The jewels were rubies, amethysts, topazes and emeralds. The front cover pictured three peacocks, symbolic of Persia, with a gigantic spray of tail feathers. The design included embroidery in gold. And the book was enclosed in a slipcase of oak.
The volume was exhibited in England and then shipped to the United States to attract buyers. But U.S. Customs demanded what the owners viewed as an exorbitant charge--so the book went back to England.
The owners decided to put it up for auction with other rare books at Sotheby's on March 29, 1912.
But a coal strike in Britain had cooled the enthusiasm of many collectors and the Rubaiyyat brought a mere 405 [pounds sterling]--worth $2,025 at that time. The New York Times said that was barely a third of the volume's intrinsic value.
Many in Britain objected to its sale to an American and wanted the book to remain in Britain. But Sotheby's packaged it up and consigned it to the White Star Line for transit to the United States. It was placed on the Titanic, which left on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic two weeks later.
The RMS Titanic was the largest passenger steamship ever built at that time, 46,000 gross tons. (The Oasis of the Seas cruise liner, just launched a few months ago, weighs in at 225,000 gross tons.)
The Titanic was considered unsinkable because it had watertight compartments below the water line that could be closed and sealed off in case the ship struck something. It could still sail with four watertight compartments flooded. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg south of Newfoundland that ripped open five watertight compartments. The ship sank within hours, taking the Rubaiyyat with it to the bottom, 2.5 miles down.
Of 2,223 passengers and crew on board, 1,517 died. The Titanic, adhering to the safety rules of the era, carried lifeboats with a capacity of only 1,178.
Edward FitzGerald was an Englishman who studied Persian literature in the 1850s. In 1859, a friend showed him the Rubaiyyat, which was little known in England among classicists, written by Omar Khayyam (1048-1122), who was better known in Persia as a mathematician. In 1860, FitzGerald published his translation of the Rubaiyyat, which only slowly, over the next several years, gained recognition and popularity.