More than 40 years ago, private papers and personal artifacts that belonged to the sleuth's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were reportedly spirited away during a family dispute over his estate. Many scholars began to doubt the existence of the manuscripts and sketches. Others feared they had been destroyed.
Christie's auction house provided an ending to the story Wednesday, saying the "lost" collection had been held for decades at a London law office.
The treasure trove of more than 3,000 items is to go on the auction block in London in May, expected to fetch up to $3.6 million, Christie's said.
A highlight of the collection is the author's drawing for the first appearance of Holmes in the novel "A Study in Scarlet," with the original title of the book, "A Tangled Skein," crossed through.
"A Study in Scarlet" was published in 1887. Over the following 40 years, Conan Doyle published 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson, who, like Conan Doyle, was a physician, a writer and had served in the British army. The author died in 1930.
Scholars have long been tantalized by the prospect of finding the papers, which were referred to in a biography published in 1949.
Jane Flower, a manuscript consultant at Christie's, said the collection had been held at the unidentified law firm for several decades until the legal dispute was resolved and that they were returned to the beneficiaries of Ana Conan Doyle, the wife of the author's youngest son, Adrian.
The artifacts then remained sealed in cardboard boxes for a few years until the family called Christie's last year. Ana Conan Doyle's beneficiaries are the vendors for the auction.
Flower, who had the task of breaking the seals, said she was astounded at the extent of the archive when the documents began tumbling out.
"It is an extraordinary collection," she said. "I have been doing this for 25 years and it was one of the most remarkable experiences of those 25 years."
There is considerable correspondence relating to Conan Doyle's involvement in numerous court cases where he believed a miscarriage of justice had occurred. In one, his work led to the overturning of the conviction of a young lawyer for mutilating horses.
The archive also contains the manuscript of the author's multivolume history of the Boer War, in which he served as a military doctor, and World War I. Doyle was a great campaigner about the lack of equipment for British troops, particularly body armor.
"What we see is the extraordinary energy of Conan Doyle over a long period of time," Flower said.
Many other pieces in the collection have a very personal slant, such as the brass nameplate Conan Doyle hung outside his fledging medical practice in Southsea, southern England, in 1882.
Also offered are his log books from the Hope, a Scottish whaling ship, on which he served as physician shortly after graduating from medical school in 1880.
"It is a very vivid document, showing his relationship with the tight-knit Scottish whalers and life on board ship," Flower said.
Other personal mementos include his wallet, passport, engagement diaries, account books and the gold medal he had struck for his wife shortly before his death, engraved "To the best of nurses."
There are also letters written to Conan Doyle from contemporaries including Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and P.G. Wodehouse and former leaders Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt.
Christie's will display several of the pieces up for auction at its New York salesrooms March 29-April 1, before placing the full archive on view at its central London office May 14-18. The auction is scheduled for May 19.
By Jane Wardell