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Titanic disaster, cherry trees sent to Washington D.C., “Sunflowers” fetches record price at auction

by Edan Corkill

100 YEARS AGO
Friday, April 19, 1912

The most appalling disaster at sea

Reuters news agency, in its second report on the wreck of the Titanic, called the disaster that befell the great floating city “the most appalling on record.” There is no longer any doubt that this accurately describes what happened in the early hours of Monday morning.

One may well doubt if there is a poet living powerful enough to do justice to the dramatic scene of hundreds of men and women who, but a moment before, were slumbering with no dream but ease, luxury and safety, being suddenly crushed by vast masses of ice in the northern sea.

After saying this, we may add that it must have given rise to various thoughts in different minds.

A religionist may have recalled the story of Babel — the great tower of human vanity — checked in its building by a visitation of God’s wrath. Though not inclined to take such a sentimental view of the present mishap, we may well ask, what does the present rivalry to build ocean-going ships of such monstrous sizes amount to, except to satisfy human weakness for extravagance?

After the Titanic (46,000 tons), there is to come a huge craft of 50,000 tons. Has there arisen any necessity for the employment of ships of such size? We have not heard a single word on the subject excepting some economic advantages.

Another question that remains unanswered is, are ships of great tonnage any the safer than vessels of smaller size?

It is evident that the maiden voyage of the Titanic was in the beginning looked upon with no small feeling of insecurity. Perhaps it is not wide of the mark to say that the trans-Atlantic trip was more in the nature of an experiment than anything else.

The conquest of nature by science is undoubtedly a most important step in human progress; but the trouble is many people mistake the triumph of money for the triumph of science. It seems to us that when science is made to serve the power of money, the line should be drawn at the limit of necessity, and not allowed to go further. For in such cases the ingenuity of science is put to its utmost strain, so that when anything goes wrong, the sacrifice is very great.

100 YEARS AGO
Thursday, April 25, 1912

3,000 cherry trees along the Potomac

The City of Tokyo, as readers of The Japan Times may remember, sent last February to the Washington government 3,000 young cherry trees. In this connection, Mayor Ozaki received a letter of thanks from Colonel Spencer Cosby of the United States Army, which is as follows:

Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Washington, D.C.

March 13, 1912

Hon. Y. Ozaki, Mayor, Tokyo, Japan

Dear Sir,

It is a great pleasure to acknowledge receipt of your letter announcing the gift by the City of Tokyo to the United States of 3,000 young cherry trees to be used for the embellishment of the City of Washington. I can assure you of the deep appreciation of our people.

Arrangements were made to have a special agent of the government meet the trees upon their arrival in Seattle, and to facilitate their prompt shipment to Washington in specially heated cars. We expect them to reach this city in a few days, and we have completed plans for planting them along the waterfront at Potomac Park. We expect them in time to make a display that will be the wonder and pride of our citizens, and a lasting memorial of the kindness of the great Japanese Empire.

I will write you further when the planting of the trees has been completed. In the meantime, allow me to assure you of my deep regard and high consideration.

Yours very sincerely,

Spencer Cosby (Sgd.),

Colonel, U.S. Army, In charge

[The 3,000 cherry trees exist to this day, and the centenary of their planting is being celebrated this month in a series of events in Washington, D.C.]

25 YEARS AGO
Friday, April 3, 1987

The art bubble

Poor Vincent van Gogh. After having sold only one canvas during his troubled, poverty-stricken lifetime, he now has the posthumous distinction of having created the world’s most expensive painting. In the latest round of multi-million-dollar art auctions, his “Sunflowers” fetched $39.9 million.

The “anonymous foreign buyer” of Van Gogh’s painting may well have been from this country. Flush with a currency that has rapidly appreciated, wealthy Japanese now account for roughly 10 percent of purchases at big international auctions. Impressionist works are most popular. Last year, Japanese collectors and museums snapped up two Renoirs (at $1.3 million each) and one Monet (at $2.2 million).

Is any work of art worth $39.9 million? We have our doubts. Put into different perspective, that sum represents more than double the 1986 Japanese contribution to UNICEF.

Chief among the losers of the current bidding wars have been museums, which lack the funds to compete. London’s Tate Gallery, for example, has an annual purchasing budget of only $2.7 million.

And of course, today’s astronomical prices are deceptive. Over the long term, art has a relatively low rate of return. What costs a small fortune today may sell for a song half a century later.

But such lessons are not learned in a hurry. The next few years will surely see some other painting command a higher price than “Sunflowers.” Sooner or later, however, the art bubble is bound to burst.

[The "anonymous buyer" was Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company (now Sompo Japan Insurance Inc.) and the painting is now on display at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Claims by some scholars that the painting is in fact a fake have been denied by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.]

In this feature in Timeout on the third Sunday of each month, we delve into The Japan Times’ 116-year-old archive to present a selection of stories from the past. Stories may be edited for brevity.