Penned in 1903, The Adventure of the Dancing Men is a typical tale of London’s most famous consulting detective, packed with secret identities, enigmatic foreigners and lost love. Central to the plot is a code made up of stick-figure men spelling out mysterious and ultimately deadly messages.
The manuscript now on offer has the original, hand-drawn code as well as indications of Conan Doyle’s writing process, complete with emendations throughout. It is offered in Heritage Auction’s Manuscripts Auction on April 18 with a low estimate of $500,000.
The current vendor was gifted the manuscript by his father, a book dealer in Texas. But provenance can be traced all the way back to Conan Doyle, who donated the bound manuscript to an auction for the benefit of the Red Cross in 1918.
“Although other Doyle manuscripts have appeared in recent years, The Adventure of the Dancing Men is a highpoint in the Doyle canon,” says Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage Auctions.
One such manuscript was for The Problem of Thor’s Bridge, a less popular story, which took a premium-inclusive $269,000 (£191,755) at Bonhams New York in 2016.
“We had the privilege of appraising the manuscript back in 2012 and we are thrilled to be selected to bring it to auction,” Palomino added.
Written on the recto only of wide-ruled paper, the 53-page document includes Conan Doyle’s edits marked clearly throughout. It is bound in plain vellum and features three instances of the author’s signature.
Dancing Men is one of 13 stories published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes cycle. In 1927, Conan Doyle ranked it his third favourite story in a list he wrote for The Strand Magazine, where the mysteries first ran. He ranked it behind The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Redheaded League.
Randall Stock, a member of Sherlock Holmes literary society The Baker Street Irregulars, has written of the lot that Conan Doyle got the idea for the central cipher when signing a young woman’s autograph book, which contained drawings on another page by two children with the surname ‘Cubitt,’ which later served as the name of the client in the story.
He adds that although it was written as the fourth story in The Return, it was published as the third to give a stronger start to the new series.