Collecting Arthur Conan Doyle: The Original Sherlock Holmes Stories

A Study in Scarlet” appeared in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, introducing the iconic characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

A Study in Scarlet” appeared in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, introducing the iconic characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born in Scotland in 1859, attended medical school and set up a medical practice in Portsmouth, England in the 1880s. But he really wanted to be an author, and his first novel, “A Study in Scarlet” appeared in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, introducing the iconic characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (who, in earlier drafts of the story had been named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker).

But the story didn’t attract much attention. And, in most homes, Beeton’s Christmas Annual was tossed out with other used magazines after the holidays. When a second tale fizzled in early 1890, Doyle hired an agent who brokered a deal with The Strand magazine to publish a series of Sherlock Holmes stories. This time, a new illustrator, Sidney Paget, was hired. Paget used his “strikingly handsome” brother Walter as the model for the pipe-smoking sleuth and the series took off.

Sidney Paget, hired to provide illustrations for Sherlock Holmes serials in The Strand magazine, based the image of the pipe-smoking sleuth on his brother Walter, described as “strikingly handsome.” The series took off.

Sidney Paget, hired to provide illustrations for Sherlock Holmes serials in The Strand magazine, based the image of the pipe-smoking sleuth on his brother Walter, described as “strikingly handsome.” The series took off.

Although Sherlock Holmes made Doyle world famous, he grew to loathe the commercial detective stories and much preferred writing “reputable” works, such as poems, plays, historical novels and romances. None, however, were nearly as popular as Holmes stories. Doyle decided that Holmes was overshadowing his more important writing and decided to put an end to the oppression. In “The Final Problem,” published in December 1893, Sherlock Holmes plunged to his death at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Almost immediately, 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to The Strand.

Doyle spent the next several years writing on many other topics and even volunteered for service in the Boer War. But he needed income for his lavish lifestyle, so when he began a gothic crime novel set in the Devonshire moors (about an escaped convict and the legend of a ghostly hound), he decided to use Sherlock Holmes as his protagonist. He placed the story prior to Holmes’ death, calling it a previously untold adventure. The first episode of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” appeared in The Strand in 1901, to the delight of thousands of fans.

The Hound of the Baskervilles”

The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Now under pressure to revive the series, Doyle responded with “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” in 1903, amidst much publicity. He explained the previous “death” of Holmes as merely a temporary ruse used by the detective to escape his many enemies. Holmes eventually appeared in 56 short stories and four full-length novels.

Ironically, although Sherlock Holmes was known for his logic and adherence to strict deductive reasoning, Doyle himself openly believed in spiritualism and the paranormal. He even traveled overseas to speak publicly on the subject. In the 1920s he was ridiculed for writing non-fiction books that defended the existence of fairies and psychic phenomena. He was convinced that the magician Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers and was hiding that fact from the public, although Houdini himself tried to explain to the author that his tricks were simply illusions.

Before Doyle’s death in 1930, he also wrote more than 100 other plays, stories and books, including several science fiction novels. Many sank into relative obscurity, but “The Lost World,” about a plateau in the Amazon basin where dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals still survived, eventually influenced the movie “Jurassic Park.”

The original 1893 artwork by Sidney Paget depicting Holmes and Professor Moriarty fighting over the Reichenbach Falls sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004 for $220,800.

The original 1893 artwork by Sidney Paget depicting Holmes and Professor Moriarty fighting over the Reichenbach Falls sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004 for $220,800.

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most beloved characters and his stories are still in print today. And what of that first appearance of Holmes in the magazine that was almost universally tossed aside? Today, only 31 copies of Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 are known to exist (and 20 of them are in libraries). An issue with both front and back covers intact and with all of the original ad inserts is worth more than $150,000. (The next time you find a stack of dusty old magazines in the back row of a flea market be sure to take a look.)

And that series-ending “death” of Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem”? The original 1893 artwork by Sidney Paget depicting Holmes and Professor Moriarty fighting over the Reichenbach Falls sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004 for $220,800.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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  1. I just read your column and enjoyed it very much. You write well and tell a great story!

    I am also a Worthologist and just wanted to say hello; I specialize in Steiff and other vintage European collectible Teddy bears and animals.

    Cheers, Rebekah Kaufman