The Sherlock Holmes Collection of Dan Posnansky Goes to Auction

"I don't think of myself as a completist, although I certainly have many thousands of Doyle things," said collector Dan Posnansky in Nick Basbanes' book hunting guide, Among the Gently Mad. Still, Posnansky spent over sixty years sleuthing out book stores and estate sales in search of materials relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and his literary detective, Sherlock Holmes. By his own account, Posnansky estimated he was in possession of roughy ten thousand volumes of all things Sherlockian.

On December 19, most of that collection is heading to auction at Calabasas-based Profiles in History and is billed as the largest single Sherlock Holmes collection to go to market. Photographs, letters, pamphlets, advertisements, commemorative objects and more will all be available at the no-reserve sale.

Perhaps the most exciting high points includes the collection of pirated editions from the late 19th century--books printed in the United States that flouted nascent and inconsistent copyright laws. At the time, American copyright stretched for 28 years with possible renewal for another 28, while English copyright extended for the life of the author plus fifty years. This loophole placed Doyle's work in the American public domain, meaning publishers could print his books without paying him any royalties. Over the course of his collecting career, Posnansky identified no less than one hundred publishing pirateers, mostly based in New York and Chicago, and his quest yielded a trove of over 1,200 pirate editions.

Of those pirated editions, one stands out: a signed copy of The Sign of the Four. This particular volume was owned by Eugene Field, a Chicago poet, bibliophile, and surprisingly, an outspoken critic of pirated editions. Yet, during Doyle's 1894 visit to Chicago, Field had the chutzpah to present his own pirated book to the author for an inscription. Recognizing the unauthorized volume for what it was, Doyle nevertheless obliged with an abrasive ditty:


This bloody pirate stole my sloop
And holds her in his wicked ward.
Lord send that walking on my poop
I see him kick at my main-yard.


Doyle also included a crude illustration of a flag bearing a skull and crossbones with a noose around the name of the publisher. "I spent thirty years tracking it [the book] down before I was finally able to buy it," Posnansky said in Among the Gently Mad. "He [Doyle] wrote a lot of letters about piracy, but this is the only documented instance of where he made his feelings known in the copy of a pirated book. And the thing that makes it really beautiful is that it is written in one of the most egregious examples of piracies you can find of his work."

Fellow Sherlockian Glen Miranker wrote a reminiscence in the auction catalog about seeking out the addresses of long gone New York pirateers. "Armed with photocopies and notes, we'd go on foot or by taxi to address after address (fortified by food from Katz's Deli on Houston Street)....Spending time with a gifted collector can rub off. I call it the Posnansky Effect."

More information about the auction can be found here

                                                                                                                                                                                Images courtesy of Profiles in History