Sherlock Holmes and the case of the vanishing treasures

SCOTLAND’S foremost expert on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has launched a last-minute campaign to ensure that recently-discovered papers by the Sherlock Holmes author, which are due to be auctioned by Christie’s, are saved for the British nation.

Owen Dudley Edwards, a historian at Edinburgh University and editor of The Oxford Sherlock Holmes, is calling on the government to step in to ensure that a key part of the Edinburgh-born author’s legacy is saved for researchers and the public.

"When this sale was announced there was tremendous surprise and anger," he said. "I am thinking about posterity - for the next 100 to 200 years."

The Edinburgh South MP, Nigel Griffiths, has taken up Professor Edwards’ cause, calling on Estelle Morris, the UK culture minister, to block the auction and explore ways of saving the Doyle archive.

"This is one of the UK’s most influential writers and we certainly don’t want to lose this valuable archive to the nation, where it should rightly be," Mr Griffiths said yesterday.

Professor Dudley Edwards has also claimed that Doyle’s last surviving daughter, Jean, who died in 1997, may have left part of the unique archive to the British Library, thereby preventing the sale.

Mr Griffiths said last night that Ms Morris’s department was in talks with the British Library over the matter - though in a statement issued yesterday the library offered no opposition to the sale.

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party MP, has also written to Ms Morris, the British Library, and the Christie’s chief executive, Edward Dolman, raising questions over the sale.

A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: "Had it been Charles Darwin or Jane Austen, there would be a massive row."

Some 3,000 personal letters, notes and handwritten manuscripts of Doyle are up for auction in a series of lots. Missing for some 40 years, most have never been published, meaning their value for collectors - and as source material on Doyle - is particularly high. They go on display today, and are expected to fetch up to 2 million.

They range from Doyle’s passport, wallet, engagement diaries and account books to his literary notebooks and a sketch for the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, which had the original title ‘A Tangled Skein’.

The papers reveal his feelings about his ailing first wife, Jean Leckie, and the woman he would later marry, Louise Hawkins. But they also underline his Scottish connections.

Doyle’s family lived in Edinburgh from 1855 until 1882. Born in the city in 1859, he returned to Edinburgh as a medical student, and the figure of Sherlock Holmes was famously inspired by one of his teachers, Dr Joseph Bell.

The collection includes an autographed fragment of the first story Doyle wrote, aged six, about a Bengal tiger, when he would have been in Edinburgh.

Another lot is a medical manual Doyle used at Edinburgh - with his own notes on the blank pages, including a poem about a "merry mariner". There are also two volumes of Doyle’s manuscript journal of a voyage he made as a ship’s doctor on a whaler that sailed to Greenland from Dundee, while he was still a student.

Mr Edwards argues that Doyle’s papers were jointly owned by Dame Jean Conan Doyle, his daughter, who left the papers to the British Library and others when she died.

Christie’s catalogue details how the papers belonged to Anna Conan Doyle, the wife of his second son Adrian, who died in 1990. They are being sold by her beneficiaries.

"We are very happy with the paperwork we have seen and if we had not been so, we would never have taken this through to auction," said Tom Lamb, head of Christie’s books and manuscripts department.

The British Library said in a statement yesterday: "The Library’s understanding from Christie’s is that the material to be sold by them in May forms no part of Dame Jean’s bequest to the British Library."