A Sherlock Holmes Story Handwritten by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Could Net $1.2 Million at Auction

It's rare to see an original handwritten Holmes story for sale.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. / Herbert Barraud/GettyImages

The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second-ever Sherlock Holmes novel, is in the public domain and can be read for free. But if you want the original handwritten manuscript, you’ll need some substantial disposable income. Doyle’s personal draft could fetch more than $1 million at auction.

Sotheby’s is offering the significant piece of Holmes history at an upcoming June 26 auction featuring the collection of Dr. Rodney Swantko, a collector from Indiana of some renown who compiled an impressive selection of rare books, manuscripts, and even some original art. A drawing of Holmes for “The Final Problem,” ostensibly the last featuring the detective before Doyle changed his mind, could net $250,000 to $350,000. The auction house has estimated that a final sales price of The Sign of Four could be $800,000 to $1.2 million.

According to Smithsonian, Doyle wrote The Sign of Four (1890) at the behest of Lippincott’s magazine editor J.M. Stoddart, who was looking to bring his publication to the United States. (Another guest at the business dinner was Oscar Wilde, who went on to write The Picture of Dorian Gray for Lippincott’s.) Holmes had made his debut in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet, and Stoddart rightfully anticipated readers wouldn’t be able to get enough of the detective.

The Sign of Four manuscript is written in cursive and is said to feature only minimal editing, some from Doyle and some from Stoddart, who wanted to use the American spelling of select words. The lot also includes letters written by Doyle detailing the dinner. Bound in a red cover, it features two of Doyle’s signatures.

“Whether Doyle spent a lot of time just thinking out in his mind before he put the words down [is uncertain],” Selby Kiffer of Sotheby’s told CNN. “But it seems to have sprung almost fully formed, from his mind to his pen.”

Doyle certainly found himself at ease with Holmes, his trademark character. After these two novels, the author set about writing a series of short stories featuring the detective. In all, Doyle penned four novels and 64 short stories, the latter of which is probably where Holmes found his greatest success.

“A number of monthly magazines were coming out at that time, notable among which was The Strand,
under the very capable editorship of Greenhough Smith,” Doyle wrote in 1924. “Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories it had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine … Looking around for my central character, I felt that Sherlock Holmes, who I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories.”

Doyle enjoyed great success with Holmes, eventually finding a home for his short tales in The Strand. When he sent the character plummeting to his death in 1893, readers were so furious they canceled their subscriptions. Doyle eventually returned to Holmes in 1901 in the prequel novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When one single page from the novel was put up for sale in 2021, it netted $423,000.

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