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Grolier Club Exhibitions

The Sign of Four

Sherlock Holmes made his second appearance thanks to the American publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (February 1890). The magazine was priced at 25¢ in the US, and its UK counterpart, issued by Ward, Lock & Co., cost one shilling.

Years later, Conan Doyle recalled the origin of this contribution as a “golden evening” in the company of an enterprising American editor and the already famous playwright Oscar Wilde. In August 1889, the two authors, along with an Irish MP, had been invited to dine at the Langham Hotel in London by Lippincott’s editor, Joseph M. Stoddart. And that very evening, both were commissioned to write a novel. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle recalled:

It was indeed a golden evening for me. Wilde to my surprise had read “Micah Clarke” and was enthusiastic about it, so that I did not feel a complete outsider. His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind. He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say.

Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray followed The Sign of the Four, appearing in July 1890.

Apart from representing the variants of the first UK book edition, the Signs here are notable for their connections to Conan Doyle’s contemporaries, to Sherlockians, to the Chicago World’s Fair (more properly known as the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition), and to the pirate publishing trade in America.

The Sign became the most pirated Sherlockian tale. More piracies can be seen elsewhere in this exhibition.


The Sign of the Four
First appearance
Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
Vol. 45, No. 266, February 1890
Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1890
In original printed wrappers

The Sign of the Four debuted in a US magazine, published simultaneously in Philadelphia and in London. The date printed on the title page verso—"Copyright, 1889, by J. B. Lippincott Company”—differs from the date on the cover, making this the first appearance.


Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
First appearance

Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
Vol. 46, No. 271, July 1890
Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1890
In original printed wrappers

Oscar Wilde, commissioned by Lippincott’s editor James M. Stoddart at the same dinner as Conan Doyle, produced The Picture of Dorian Gray for the magazine’s July 1890 issue. The editors cut some 500 words from the novel, without his knowledge, fearing there were “a number of things an innocent woman would make [sic] an exception to.”

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The Sign of Four
Three variant first UK book editions

First issue: London: Spencer Blackett, October 1890
Second issue: London: Griffith, Farran & Co., 1891
Fourth issue: London: George Newnes Ltd., October 1894

The Sign sold fewer than 1,000 copies in its first year, and the press run didn’t sell out. The remaining sheets passed from publisher to publisher, with changing spines and title pages.


Holograph letter to R. Hemingsley
On blank stationery, March 14, 1890

This letter, dated shortly after the Sign appeared in Lippincott’s, shows Conan Doyle maturing as a businessman, quickly pursuing and controlling the serialization of his second Sherlockian novel. A critic with the Birmingham Daily Gazette, Hemingsley was an admirer of Conan Doyle’s work and his frequent correspondent. The two men had a cordial relationship and correspondence spanning decades.


The Sign of Four
First UK book edition, first issue
With Marquess of Donegall’s bookplate and a tipped-in holograph postcard to R. Hemingsley
London: Spencer Blackett, October 1890

A notable copy in many ways, this was the first book appearance of the novel in the UK and includes a handwritten postcard from Conan Doyle, dated before the book’s publication, expanding on his plans for serialization. This volume also has the bookplate from the library of Edward Hamilton Chichester, the 6th Marquess of Donegall, a journalist, Sherlockian scholar, collector, and longtime editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal.


The Sign of Four
First edition, second issue
With Marquess of Donegall’s bookplate
London: Griffith, Farran & Co., 1891

Another copy of the Griffith, Farran & Co. first edition, second issue, with the original publisher’s name, Spencer Blackett, remaining on the title page. This copy also belonged to the 6th Marquess of Donegall and features his bookplate.


The Sign of Four
First US book edition
Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1893

A group of three Signs, all copies of the first authorized US book edition, clothbound in variant colors: blue, tan, and maroon. There is no known sequence among the different colors.

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The Sign of the Four
Pirated edition, inscribed, ownership signature, tipped in ticket stub
New York: United States Book Company, 1893

This book is remarkable for its many bibliographic oddities and for its backstory. Note that Lovell, Coryell, & Company is stamped on the spine, while the title page lists the United States Book Company as the publisher, without a date. Also notable is the inclusion of two additional Sherlockian tales, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “A Case of Identity.” A third curiosity is the book’s pair of signatures. Its owner, Chicago business magnate H. N. Higinbotham, signed it on the front pastedown, and Conan Doyle inscribed it on the title page. It is ironic that the author signed a piracy, a practice Conan Doyle publicly abhorred. But since Higinbotham proffered the book at a dinner party he gave in the author’s honor, presumably the polite thing for Conan Doyle's to do was simply to sign the volume.


The Sign of Four
Souvenir Edition, inscribed
London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1901

Newnes issued this Souvenir Edition in December 1901 to coincide with William Gillette’s production of the play Sherlock Holmes at the Lyceum Theatre. The cover featured a gilt sphinx on dark blue cloth, designed by Alfred Garth Jones, who followed it several months later with a dramatic cover for The Hound of the Baskervilles.


The Sign of Four
Souvenir Edition, in dust jacket
London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1901

The gray-green jacket included ads for Newnes’s Thin Paper Series on the front jacket flap and the Caxton Series on the back jacket flap. The back cover advertised the four volumes in the Souvenir Edition. Readers could buy each volume separately for 3/6 or as a set, with top- edge gilt, in a slipcase for 14/–. (In 1901, a month’s rent was 10/– for a London professional man.)


The Sign of Four
With typed correspondence
between Sherlockian collectors
London: George Newnes, Limited, undated
In original paper wrappers

This sixpenny copy was owned by Adrian Goldstone and includes a typed letter dated March 6, 1970, from Goldstone to Nathan Bengis, asking whether he can date the book. Bengis typed his reply on the same letter: “Unless the title page is dated, or there is a year on the cover picture, there is no way of being sure.”