A Sherlock Holmes Manuscript Could Realize $1.2M at Sotheby’s

The manuscript will be sold alongside a trove of first edition copies by authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens and L. Frank Baum.

Hands flipping through open book
A manuscript for The Sign of Four could become the most valuable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle item sold at auction. Courtesy Sotheby's

The literary legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four can be traced back to a fateful dinner in the summer of 1889. The writer was dining with  J.M. Stoppard, an American businessman and the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at London’s Langham Hotel. By the evening’s end, Stoppard had managed to commission the novella from Conan Doyle for his publication—in addition to convincing Oscar Wilde, another dinner guest, to write The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

(“I am curious to see Oscar Wilde’s novel,” wrote Conan Doyle in a letter recalling the night. “I hope it turns out well. Clever it is sure to be, but the art of storytelling is something more than that.”)

Now Conan Doyle’s original manuscript born out of that night, plus the author’s correspondence with Stoppard regarding The Sign of Four‘s progress, is heading to auction at Sotheby's. Signed twice by the writer and filled with edits to “Americanize” the text for U.S. readers, the bound book is expected to sell for between $800,000 and $1.2 million—making it the most valuable Conan Doyle item ever to come to auction.

SEE ALSO: Why More Artists Are Forming Limited Liability Corporations

The text is one of more than forty rare books that will star in a Sotheby’s auction on June 26 during its annual Book Week. The sale, which covers two centuries of literary milestones, is expected to bring in between $4 million and $6 million and includes works by writers including Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck.

Selling the library of book collector Rodney Swantko 

Stack of books pictured against black background
The Rodney Swantko collection is expected to bring in up to $6 million. Courtesy Sotheby's

The books hitting the block come from the library of Rodney Swantko, a Chicago-based book collector who died in 2022. “While any collection will bear the personal imprint of its collector, the library of Rodney Swantko is curated with an exceptional level of detail and dedication, celebrating the rich tapestry of 20th-century literature,” said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, in a statement.

His library was notable for its range of first editions, including two English 1955 copies of Lolita signed by Vladimir Nabokov with an original drawing of a butterfly. The books were originally gifted by the author to his wife and fellow writer Graham Greene.

A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 The Great Gatsby, inscribed to his wife Zelda’s sister and husband, will also feature in the sale alongside a signed copy of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And with an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, there is an 1843 A Christmas Carol signed by Charles Dickens for his friend Walter Savage Landor, who inspired the character of Lawrence Boythorn in Dickens’ Bleak House.

Another piece of literary history in Swantko’s collection is Edgar Allen Poe’s 1827 Tamerlane and Other Poems, which was printed when Poe was only 18 years old. The forty-page collection is one of only twelve known copies and one of only two in private hands. It is expected to fetch between $400,000 and $600,000.

Swantko, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, harbored a deep love for rare books and often shared his passion with local institutions. He gifted items like a signed copy of Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem Chicago to the Chicago History Museum and a first edition of Walt Whitman’s 1865 Drum-Taps to Chicago’s Newberry Library, in addition to being a supporting patron of the Lilly Library at his alma mater, Indiana University.

The collector kept a low profile and typically bid at major auctions via telephone, according to Sotheby’s. “Known in literary circles as a meticulous collector, the full scope of Swantko’s library is now fully revealed for the first time, showcasing the totality of his collecting vision and the taste and curiosity that drove his passion for decades,” said Austin.

A Sherlock Holmes Manuscript Could Realize $1.2M at Sotheby’s