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The piece of wood that saved (only) Rose in 'Titanic' was auctioned off for $718k

The wooden door panel that saves Rose's life in the 1997 blockbuster <em>Titanic</em> was one of hundreds of iconic Hollywood props, and several from the movie, auctioned off in a five-day sale last week.
Heritage Auctions
The wooden door panel that saves Rose's life in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic was one of hundreds of iconic Hollywood props, and several from the movie, auctioned off in a five-day sale last week.

Some of the most iconic props in Hollywood history hit the auction block last week, from Indiana Jones' trusty whip to Forrest Gump's assorted chocolates to the infamous ax from The Shining.

But the top-selling item was a piece of debris, albeit one that's stirred imagination and debate for over a quarter century.

"The wood panel from Titanic that saved Rose — but, controversially, not Jack — was the king of the auction, realizing $718,750 to float to the top of the five-day event," auction house Heritage Auctions said in a release.

The "Hero Floating Wood Panel" played an iconic role in the 1997 blockbuster. As the Titanic sinks, stranding passengers in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Kate Winslet's character Rose manages to lie afloat on the piece of a door while Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack clings to the edge, eventually succumbing to hypothermia.

"The biggest scene, really, the climactic scene if you will," the auctioneer said, introducing the lot item. "There are several big scenes but this is it, this is the goodbye."

Bidding started at $60,000 and finished some five minutes later at $575,000 (the total cost included additional fees). In the video livestream, the crowd can be heard clapping heartily as the auctioneer congratulates the winner, whom he refers to as "Mr. Green."

The five-day "Treasures from Planet Hollywood" auction brought in more than $15.6 million from over 5,500 bidders worldwide across some 1,600 lots, according to Heritage Auctions, which said there were so many bidding wars that "we lost track."

"There has been a generational shift to where these massive franchises and blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s — the Home Alones, the Indiana Jones films, the Die Hards and, of course, Titanic — are now collectors' favorites," Executive Vice President Joe Maddalena said in a statement provided to NPR. "Collectors are finally rewarding these artifacts as what they are: cultural artifacts akin to the fine art of old."

Five of the top lots came from Titanic, including the ship's helm wheel ($200,000), Rose's waterlogged chiffon dress ($118,750) and the ship's brass engine order telegraph ($81,250) — another sign that the public's fascination with the century-old shipwreck isn't going anywhere.

The prop is modeled on a real-life structure

The 8-foot-long, 41-inch-wide floating hunk of wood is made of balsa and intricately carved with rococo motifs like floral accents and scrolling curves, according to the auction house.

A plaque on the back of it reads: "Leonardo DiCaprio / Kate Winslet / 'Titanic' / Twentieth Century Fox / Paramount Pictures, 1997 / Floating panel that he uses to save her life in the sinking sequence of the film, in their roles as 'Jack Dawson' and 'Rose DeWitt Bukater'. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox."

Heritage Auctions says the prop was based on the "most famous complete piece of debris from the 1912 tragedy," which is believed to be part of the door frame just above the first-class lounge entrance.

Researchers theorize that the panel represents the exact area where the ship split in two and that it rose to the water's surface as the ship sank. The auction house notes that it closely resembles one particular artifact housed at the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Director James Cameron visited the museum during the movie production and consulted with an American expert who had assisted with research there, according to the Maritime Museum.

"Among other things this permitted accurate replicas of the deckchairs to be constructed and most notably, a replica of a large piece of carved oak [paneling] to be built," it added. "It was used in the climactic death scene in the film where the character Rose clings to floating wreckage."

Fans have long debated whether there was room for both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) on the makeshift raft in the 1997 blockbuster <em>Titanic</em>.
CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images
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CBS via Getty Images
Fans have long debated whether there was room for both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) on the makeshift raft in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

The piece of wood is at the heart of an enduring debate

Enraged fans have argued for decades that there was room on the board for both paramours and that Rose could have saved Jack — and their star-crossed love story — by simply scooting over.

Cameron adamantly disagrees, as he's made clear in multiple interviews over the years.

"When Jack puts Rose on the raft, he tries to get on the raft — he's not an idiot, he doesn't want to die — and the raft sinks; it kind of flips," Cameron told IGN in 2012. "And so it's clear that there's really only enough buoyancy available for one person. So he makes the decision to let her be that person."

MythBusters even teamed up with Cameronin an episode that same year to tackle the question, which it called "the most requested myth in MythBuster history."

They concluded that Rose and Jack could have both stayed afloat and avoided hypothermia, but only if they had thought to tie her life jacket underneath it to help with buoyancy. That's missing the point, Cameron said at the time (he said five years later that he loved working with the MythBusters, "but they're full of s***").

"The script says Jack died. He has to die," he said in the episode. "So maybe we screwed up and the board should have been a little tiny bit smaller, but the dude's goin' down."

In 2022, a full 25 years after the movie's release, Cameron said he had commissioned a scientific study to hopefully close the door on the debate once and for all.

The results, which aired in a National Geographic special last year, suggested that under some scenarios, both Jack and Rose could have survived on the makeshift raft had they known more about hypothermia and thermodynamics.

"In an experiment in a test pool, we can't possibly simulate the terror, the adrenaline, all the things that worked against them," Cameron said. "He couldn't have anticipated what we know today about hypothermia. He didn't get to run a bunch of different experiments to see what worked the best."

At the end of the day, Cameron maintained Jack's death was necessary both as a plot device and character choice. But said he would have done it differently based on what he knows now: "I would have made the raft smaller, so there's no doubt."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.