IT could have come straight out of one of the author’s own stories – a lost archive of unique material valued at two million pounds uncovered in the offices of a London law firm after being missing for decades.
So important is the veritable treasure chest dubbed The Lost Papers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that experts claim their loss over the past 40 years has prevented the writing of any credible modern biography of the author.
Now Christie’s have landed the plum job of selling the archive in London on May 19, three days short of Conan Doyle’s birthday.
The list of documents included is enough to make any Doyle scholar salivate – over 3000 items of personal letters, notes, handwritten manuscripts, 80 per cent of which have not been published, and personal effects taken from Conan Doyle’s writing desk after his death in 1930.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the title draft of a sketch for the first of his four great Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study In Scarlet. It reveals that the original title was A Tangled Skein, here crossed through with the eventual title added. First published by Ward Lock and Company as the main story in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Doyle was paid £25 for the copyright. Here the sketch is being sold as part of the three Southsea Notebooks, from his days as a young doctor in Southsea (estimate: £100,000-150,000).
Included is an important collection of letters relating to his family, allowing a re-evaluation of his relationships with family members, as well as his private and public life and his fascination with spiritualism.
Christie’s were called in by beneficiaries of the Conan Doyle estate, creating the first opportunity for a specialist expert to inspect the collection in over half a century. “Opening the dozen or so large cardboard boxes, which had housed the archive since the 1960s, was a spine-tingling moment that I will never forget,” says Tom Lamb, Head of Christie’s Books and Manuscripts department. “The whereabouts of this material was previously unknown and it is for this reason that no modern-day biography of the author exists. Scholars and admirers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have long been tantalised by the list of the writer’s personal papers published in the authorised biography by John Dickson Carr in 1949,” adds Jane Flower, Christie’s Manuscript Consultant.
Conan Doyle’s fame today rests on his creation of enduring literary characters, foremost among them Sherlock Holmes, but also the indomitable scientist Professor Challenger – whom Doyle favoured over Holmes – and the irrepressible Napoleonic cavalryman, Brigadier Gerard.
The surviving papers include a whole collection of the writer’s literary notebooks, demonstrating the genesis of his major works in painstaking historical and scientific research.
Other items include the nameplate from Conan Doyle’s medical practice in Southsea in 1882 when he was a local GP dreaming of literary success (estimate: £10,000-15,000).
Adrian and Denis Conan Doyle took over custodianship of the papers from their mother, the writer’s widow Jean, following her death in the early 1940s. She passed on a collection which had been carefully sorted. After their deaths, lengthy legal disputes on the division and amount of income from the Conan Doyle Literary Estate resulted in the collection being tucked away and lost from view.
A United States exhibition of highlights will be held at Christie’s Rockefeller Center salerooms from March 29-April 1. The archive will then go on view at Christie’s in King Street, London from Friday, May 14.
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