Almost Lost Treasures: Oceanliner Art from Alang

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Peter Knego on top of the former MV AUGUSTUS' funnel at Alang
Peter Knego on top of the former MV AUGUSTUS‘ funnel at Alang

Cruise journalist and historian Peter Knego is collecting art and furniture from cruise ships and ocean liners that are being scrapped at Alang, India. More than that: He personally travels to India to find all these wonderful pieces. Even though he’d love to keep all for himself and put them on display in a museum, he also sells some of the pieces he finds at Alang. We’ve just recently met Peter at the christening of the MSC Preziosa at Geno, Italy, and had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his fascinating and very unusual work. (auch verfügbar in deutscher Übersetzung)

Peter, how did you develop a passion for salvaging and collecting furniture, art work and memorabilia from defunct ocean liners and cruise ships?

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As a child, when I first became interested in ships, I used to read with great sadness and curiosity about the demise of all the old cruise ships and liners that were being scrapped at Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I wondered if these things were being destroyed or if there was some sort of market in the region where they were resold. At the time, I was too young to do much about it but I promised myself that if there ever was an opportunity later on to salvage things from classic ships, that I would do my best to try.

Taking the tender out to the beached SS AUSONIA in 2011
Taking the tender out to the beached SS AUSONIA in 2011

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I spent all of my resources traveling the world to visit old liners, knowing that one day the scrap market would be claiming them, too. By doing this, I learned what was still on board such liners as the former WINDSOR CASTLE, the ex AUGUSTUS, the former IVERNIA/FRANCONIA, former AUREOL and many others.

Peter Knegp with SS BLUE LADY at Alang
Peter Knegp with SS BLUE LADY at Alang

In 2001, when the ex AUREOL and ex-PRINCIPE PERFEITO (both still very original British-built liners with beautiful wood paneling, nickel fittings, etched glass and sturdy, wood-framed furnishings) went to Alang, it was time for me to „put up or shut up“ as we say in the States. I faxed the shipbreaker with a list of items of interest and he put me in touch with a local agent to assist in removing and sending the things to me. I filled a 20 foot container and when it arrived at my home on a gloomy winter day, my neighbors must have truly thought I was insane.

Wall of etched glass, brass and maple from SS EMPRESS OF BRITAIN for sale via MidShipCentury
Wall of etched glass, brass and maple from SS EMPRESS OF BRITAIN for sale via MidShipCentury

Many of the items were poorly packed and broken and covered in filth. At first, I just filled my garage and considered throwing things like the smashed bar from AUREOL away but I did not have the heart to destroy them after all they had gone through to get to me. Instead, I gradually cleaned everything up and found that most of the items were so well made that they could be restored to their original beauty.

When my friends began to see how nice everything was, they began to ask if I could get them similar items. It was at that time that I considered buying larger quantities of things to sell, in turn helping me fund the rescue of key items like bells, builder’s plates, architectural plans and other things that were historically important but perhaps not very appealing to people not interested in ships.

Do you consider yourself an antiques dealer? Or more as a collector and ship’s historian who also sells this stuff eery now and then?

Etched Glass Panel from First Class Suite MV AUGUSTUS depicting Venus
Etched Glass Panel from First Class Suite MV AUGUSTUS depicting Venus

Maybe a combination of both in addition to being a cruise writer, lecturer and ship video producer. Almost every aspect of my life now is tied in with cruise ships and ocean liners.

Who are your customers? Other collectors? Cruise ship fans? Nostalgics?

SS HAMBURG Alster Club hide panel set by Kristin Koschade-Hotz
SS HAMBURG Alster Club hide panel set by Kristin Koschade-Hotz

The customers who help pay the big bills are mostly interior designers who understand and appreciate the uniqueness of the things I have found. They get very excited about having access to large quantities of chairs, light fixtures and giant panels, especially when they are designing public spaces.

Section of First Class Bar from MV AUGUSTUS with ceramic insets by Carlo Sbisa of Trieste
Section of First Class Bar from MV AUGUSTUS with ceramic insets by Carlo Sbisa of Trieste

I do have a loyal group of private collectors and there are occasionally people with an interest in a specific ship (such as one lady who had an affair with an officer on STELLA SOLARIS and had to have a chair to remember the ship by)..

Many ship collectors aren’t blessed with unlimited space or funding, so a lot of things I have are beyond their grasp. Or, as I often hear, „I love it but my spouse would kill me if I bought an old chair and put it in our house.“

How do you find all these pieces anyway? I suppose you buy them directly from the ship breakers in Alang?

With his agent Kaushal in front of the SS HAMBURG's lobby panel in India
With his agent Kaushal in front of the SS HAMBURG’s lobby panel in India

I’ve only dealt with Alang-based breakers after much trial and error but I now have an agent in India that I trust implicitly. There are many crooked entities in the industry and there are a lot of frauds, so I am weary of dealing with breakers in say, Turkey or China but would not rule it out if an important ship went to those places and I was able to find someone I could trust to ship the items to me.

How do you get all this stuff off the ships and to the US?

Peter Knego's back yard with items from Alang shortly after delivery of the last container
Peter Knego’s back yard with items from Alang shortly after delivery of the last container

The items are lowered from the ship into pontoons or tenders and brought ashore by hand. Then they are trucked to a facility in Bhavnagar (the nearest city to Alang) where they are stuffed into a container and shipped to my home via the Port of Los Angeles.

Is it hard for you as a ship’s hisorian to sell and give away especially beautiful pieces? And how much do you keep for your own collection?

Great question. It breaks my heart to part with any of these things but then the bills for storage, shipping, etc. arrive and I am faced with no choice. Many things are installed in my home, which is now basically a composite of a couple dozen important liners of the 1950s and 1960s. As my designer friends tell me, I have kept the best things for myself but then after what I have gone through to get them, I don’t see what is wrong with that.

Also, I am hoping that one day there will be enough interest for me to place my collection in a setting where people can enjoy it. Some of the artwork and furnishings I have acquired are very unique and would have appeal to anyone with the slightest interest in design or art, whether or not they like ships.

Almost a living museum – Peter Knegos house near Los Angeles:


How do you estimate the value of unique pieces?

I do as much research as I can on particular artists and designers to see what the market value is for some of their creations. On some items, especially the Italian artwork, there is a high demand and I need to charge a premium as I have huge storage bills that need to be paid whether I sell a lot of smaller things or not.

What was the most exciting piece you’ve discovered in a ship so far?

When I found the painting called „Chariots“ from the SS STELLA SOLARIS at one of the traders at Alang, I could not believe it. I knew the panel from Sun Line brochures and had seen it on the ship but never paid it much mind. And then, to see it on its own, exposed in the sunlight, it took my breath away. It took some bidding to acquire and after it was delivered to me, I learned about the artist, Emanuele Luzzati, of Genoa.

An Italian ship historian friend, Paolo Piccione, arranged for me to meet Luzzati at his museum in Genoa and I had a chance to ask him about all of the artwork I had acquired. Sadly, he passed away a year or so later but I am happy that he was able to see how so much of his artwork was saved for people to continue to enjoy.

And which was the one you personally liked most – and why?

Panel depicting Cleopatra's Suicide from SS AUSONIA's dining room by Giovanni Majoli, now in Peter Knego's dining room
Panel depicting Cleopatra’s Suicide from SS AUSONIA’s dining room by Giovanni Majoli, now in Peter Knego’s dining room

Right now, I am battling with myself over which art I like the most. I have a painting of Cleopatra’s suicide by Majoli from the dining room of the AUSONIA, a carved wooden panel of South American life by Marangoni from the AUGUSTUS, the melamine „Rising Earth“ panel from SS HAMBURG’s (later MAXIM GORKIY) main passage, and several paintings and hammered nickel panels by Luzzati from ships as diverse as STELLA MARIS II, EUGENIO C and Incres Line’s VICTORIA that are certainly at the top of the list but I really cherish all that I have both in my home and in storage.

Peter Knego at Genoa, 2013
Peter Knego at Genoa

If any of your readers are interested in just seeing some of these things, I welcome them to visit www.midshipcentury.com and also „like“ our our Facebook Page as I post many things on there that do not necessarily get to the website. I also have made a video about my first visit to Alang in 2004 when almost a dozen important liners and cruise ships were beached there at one time. It is called „The Sands Of Alang“ and the sequel, „On The Road To Alang“ has been released just a recently. „Sands“ is about my second visit to rescue items from Costa Line’s EUGENIO C and several other ships.

On the website MaritimeMatters.com, I write two blogs about cruise ships and liners. „Sea Treks“ are my reports from modern cruise ships and accounts of my visits to some of the remaining old classics like the nuclear merchant ship SAVANNAH, the PACIFIC (ex PACIFIC PRINCESS) and many, many more. „Decked!“ is my detailed top to bottom tours of many ships, from the SS UNITED STATES to the DOULOS and the ship I am currently sailing aboard, the MV PAUL GAUGUIN.

Thanks very much, Peter for this great conversation!

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