Arthur Conan Doyle Agreed to Write ‘The Sign of the Four’ at a Fateful Dinner in 1889

The handwritten manuscript he produced is going to auction, where it could become the most expensive item associated with the mystery writer ever sold

Open manuscript
The handwritten manuscript of The Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel Sotheby's

Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly magazine in 1890. Now, the author’s handwritten manuscript of the book—the only copy in existence—is expected to sell for $1.2 million.

The Sign of the Four followed Conan Doyle’s successful A Study in Scarlet (1887), the literary debut of detective Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. Watson. The manuscript of the sequel will go on sale later this year at Sotheby’s, which calls it the “most valuable Conan Doyle item ever offered at auction,” per CNN’s Issy Ronald.

The book was commissioned at an 1889 dinner, which Conan Doyle recounted in letters that will accompany the manuscript in the sale. That summer, Conan Doyle and fellow writer Oscar Wilde met with J.M Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s, at London’s Langham Hotel. Stoddart, who was American, wanted to expand his magazine across the pond. As CNN writes, “By the time they left, Wilde had committed to writing The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle had agreed to write The Sign of the Four.”

The story was published in Lippincott’s Monthly magazine in 1890. Sotheby's

“It’s hard to think of two contemporary authors who might be less similar than Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde,” Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s international senior specialist for books and manuscripts, tells CNN. “And yet there they are at a dinner table together and talking about what they’re currently working on. So you’re put in the milieu of the time, and that really helps [us] understand the genesis and the creation of the manuscript in a way that very seldom happens.”

When Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of the Four, stories were still his side hustle. After graduating from medical school, he opened his own practice in Portsmouth, England, in 1882. Conan Doyle eventually abandoned his medical career, but his training lived on in the character Watson, the doctor who narrates the Holmes stories.

Bound in a red hardcover marked with gold lettering, the murder mystery is written in neat cursive. CNN reports that the text is “exceptionally clean, bearing only Stoddart’s edits to Americanize spellings and a few crossed-out words as Conan Doyle himself tweaked his work.” Kiffer notes that this is typical of a Conan Doyle manuscript: “It seems to have sprung almost fully formed, from his mind to his pen,” he tells the channel.

When the 160-page manuscript was previously sold in 1996, the late Holmes expert Jon Lellenberg told the New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin: “[Conan Doyle] did not feel the need to make many changes.” He added: “[The Sign of the Four] is clearly the work of a man who had gotten to know his own characters very well.”

Sidney Paget's illustration "The Death of Sherlock Holmes"
Also for sale is an original illustration by Sidney Paget, The Death of Sherlock Holmes, which was printed with Conan Doyle's 1893 short story "The Final Problem." Sidney Paget / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The manuscript will be sold alongside over 40 other rare literary treasures, including first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), reports Artnet’s Verity Babbs. An original drawing that illustrator Sidney Paget made for Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem (1893) is also part of the sale.

The Sign of the Four manuscript—which Conan Doyle signed twice—is “an exceptionally rare piece of literary history, offering a unique glimpse into Doyle’s writing process,” says Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, per Artnet. “The ensemble provides a rich tapestry of insight into the preparation of Holmes for an American audience, cementing his legacy in the pantheon of literature’s great characters.”

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