Saturday - 30 August 2014

The Conan Doyle Collection

21 June 2004Written by ATG Reporter

THE background to the much-publicised and, to some, controversial sale of The Conan Doyle Collection at Christie’s on May 19 is carefully explained in the introduction to the sale catalogue (click here to view introduction in full), as is the manner in which the writer’s “missing” papers were variously dispersed and divided up, bought back, sold off in the 1970s, stored, argued over for 25 years and finally either consigned to the British Library or to auction.

Nevertheless, there was a lot of protest at the time by those who felt that the archive was never intended to be broken up and should have been deposited in its entirety with the British Library, and a bizarre and unwonted Holmesian twist was added by the tragic and mysterious death by garotte of Richard Lancelyn Green, the Conan Doyle collector and bibliographer - some of whose own photographs were used to illustrate the King Street catalogue.

Given the vast amount of newsprint already devoted to the collection - not all of it entirely accurate - and, of course, to the sad death of Richard Lancelyn Green, on which the coroner delivered an open verdict, I am not minded to devote any more of my limited column space to anything other than a selection of the lots that raised a premium-inclusive total of around £950,000. I would instead refer interested readers to the Christie's catalogue introduction (click here to view introduction in full), to the obituary of Richard Lancelyn Green published in The Independent on April 8 (reprinted in Bookdealer No. 1663, dated 22nd April) and to a more personal piece on the case of Richard Lancelyn Green by George Locke that appeared in Bookdealer No. 1669, dated 3rd June.

In an attempt to maintain some form of integrity in the presentation of the papers that came to auction last month, Christie's grouped them according to theme and interest, and where possible kept them intact, in the hope that future generations of Conan Doyle enthusiasts will be better able to study the author and his work.

Large family correspondences, for example, were kept together, as were papers on his favourite causes, areas of interest, etc. Under the 'Early Life' heading, for example, were included such things as a piece of paper bearing a 36-word fragment (in pencil) from the first story that he ever wrote, a tale of a Bengal tiger written at the age of six, which with a letter of presentation from his mother, Mary, to his second wife, Jean, and other related ephemera, sold for £4500 to a collector, and the brass nameplate from his Southsea surgery, which was sold for £18,000 to a US dealer.

Sold at £40,000 to Quaritch was the four-vol. autograph manuscript of an untitled and unpublished first novel of the 1880s - a "lost" semi-autobiographical tale of six days in the life of rheumatic gout sufferer John Smith, of which Conan Doyle was later to write, "my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again - in print".

A mere fragment of The Adventure of the Reigate Squires, the final 11 lines of his autograph manuscript for a Holmes story that was first published in The Strand in June 1893, was bid
to £24,000 by an unnamed American dealer (or perhaps dealers) whose name was linked with many a lot in the sale.

'The Southsea Notebooks', three volumes dating from the years 1885-89 - in two of which the writer has made literary, historical and philosophical notes in preparation for his writing, while the third contains accounts of seances and notes on spiritual and occult subjects - brought an American trade bid of £120,000.

'The Norwood Notebook', which covers the period 1885-99 and, unlike the Southsea notebooks, which deal in both facts and ideas, is specifically concerned with ideas was another US trade purchase at £50,000. This notebook lotted with a diary in which Conan Doyle details significant events in his life during the years 1885-96.

Yet another early (1890s) notebook containing ideas for his stories was bid to £16,000 and once again it was an American trade purchase.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's extensive correspondence with his literary agents. A.P. Watt & Son, including 65 letters in the writer's own hand, was yet one more US trade purchase at £45,000, as was the typescript with autograph corrections of the first two acts (of three?) of The Stonor Case, the unfinished precursor of the Sherlock Holmes story that was eventually to re-emerge as The Speckled Band and become one of his more successful dramatic productions. This sold at £20,000, as did the corrected typescript of the play as it was finally published in 1910. One can only assume that this too went to the active US trade bidder.

A collection of letters and papers relating to the 'Edjali Case', Conan Doyle's first great fight for justice - a largely successful attempt to gain a pardon for George Edjali, the son of a Midlands vicar who had been sentenced to seven years' hard labour for allegedly mutilating animals and anonymous letter writing - was left unsold against an estimate of £30,000-50,000, but Quaritch gave that low figure for a similarly estimated archive relating to the Oscar Slater case.

The latter deals with his 16-year campaign to free a German-Jewish gambler (born Joseph Leschziner) who had been convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy spinster. The death sentence had been commuted to hard labour, presumably in some recognition of the fact that evidence was in many instances flawed or suppressed and the conviction was largely based on his character and lifestyle.

This lot included the letter in which Slater asked his fellow prisoner William Gordon to do his best for him and "...to write or see Conan D" - a letter that Gordon smuggled out of prison under his dentures.

A correspondence between Conan Doyle and his sister Lottie, a major source for his Southsea years, was left unsold on a £30,000-50,000 estimate, but a series of 83 letters and 32 postcards addressed to his beloved brother Innes in the years 1890-1918, an archive that the auctioneers categorised as one of his most revealing correspondences, was sold for £60,000 to Quaritch. It includes frank discussions on his family and personal life, even his relations with Jean before his marriage, as well as on the triumphs of his literary career and his great public concerns.

A letter from Churchill to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, written just one month after the first use of tanks during WWI and thanking him for his encouragement in the matter, but remarking on the length of time taken between his first issuing orders for the production of the 'caterpillars' as they were then called, and their appearance on the battlefield, was sold at £7500 to a US dealer.

Oddities included a typescript with autograph emendations of 'A Chat with Conan Doyle', a recording in which he answers "...two questions which my friends continually ask me... how I came to write Sherlock Holmes and... why I became a Spiritualist", together with two 78rpm gramophone recordings of the same (one cracked), and a silver cornered, lizard skin wallet used by the writer - each of which sold for £2800 to a collector. The wallet contents included photographs of Conan Doyle and his two sons in cricket whites and another of Jean with the two boys at a much younger age.

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