25 July 2010

Sherlock Holmes / State of the Market/ Literary Swindlers 2

I have been thinking about Conan Doyle this week and the failure at auction of a fine first signed presentation of A Study in Scarlet. It was bought in at £250,000. Possibly the Sangorski rebind was a good excuse not to buy it, a limpid wraps copy inscribed would surely sell. Possibly a warmer inscription or a presentation to a fellow explorer of the spiritual realms-someone like Madam Blavatsky or the boy avatar Krishnamurti would have carried it over the finishing line. The inscription read - "This is the very first | independent book of | mine which ever was | published | Arthur Conan Doyle. | Jan 9 / 14".

There must be several thousand Sherlockian punters worldwide but sadly (for the seller) not one of them with a few hundred grand to spare for the great 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual. One dealer I met took it as a portent--he also cited a lacklustre Churchill sale and major botanical books that were making less now than in the early 1990s without even building in inflation. 'Prices are dropping like stones' he mused. All is not lost, price changes can often be explained by shifts in taste and one can see new auction records being broken almost weekly in the field of fine modern first editions in fine jackets or with great inscriptions. Follow the money --as the swindler might say.

My favourite Sherlock story is Charles Augustus Milverton. Holmes, master of disguise, in pitted against the evil and resourceful Milverton - a pitiless blackmailer of noble women. Holmes disguises himself as a plumber and heads to Hampstead, where he courts Milverton's housemaid, even managing to become her fiancé. The character of Charles Augustus Milverton was based on a real blackmailer, Charles Augustus Howell, an art dealer who preyed upon an unknown number of people, including the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Not quite a literary swindler, although he may have trousered some of Ruskin's money. His biographer Helen Rossetti Angeli, could find no evidence to support accusations of blackmail. There is a fine Beerbohm watercolour of him eavesdropping at a door while his lover while Rosa Corder forges Rossetti drawings. He is said to have been involved in his friend Felice Orsini's attempt to assassinate Napoleon III in 1858 and to have persuaded Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he buried with his wife Elizabeth Siddal. His death was equally macabre -he was found close to a Chelsea public house with his throat slit, and a ten-shilling coin in his mouth. There is a suggestion he may have died elsewhere. The ten bob bid treatment was apparently reserved for those guilty of slander.

Ruskin, rich in his time, employed him as a secretary between 1865 and 1868. He trusted Howell with "affairs needing delicate handling and a wise discretion..." - mostly to manage his discreet charitable donations. Howell sought increasingly to obtain complete control of Ruskin's finances and Edward Burne-Jones persuaded him to sever his connection with Howell. Whistler thought he was a fine fellow, however, a "wonderful man...genius...splendidly flamboyant." [To be continued.] Pics from Chinese 1980s Sherlockian graphic novels including 'Charles Augustus Milverton.'
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