Baker Street blues

Charles Foley has been pilloried for selling papers belonging to his great-uncle, Arthur Conan Doyle. He tells Andrew Lycett why the auction is elementary

In the past two months, Charles Foley has been cast as the villain in a drama worthy of his great-uncle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It has been a tale complete with disputed estates, valuable documents, and the mysterious death of an expert witness. The main surviving heir to Conan Doyle, Foley sits in a London hotel rolling the first of many cigarettes, and expresses "disappointment" at the stories being bandied about.

In the past two months, Charles Foley has been cast as the villain in a drama worthy of his great-uncle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It has been a tale complete with disputed estates, valuable documents, and the mysterious death of an expert witness. The main surviving heir to Conan Doyle, Foley sits in a London hotel rolling the first of many cigarettes, and expresses "disappointment" at the stories being bandied about.

The 48-year-old has been largely responsible for putting a large collection of his great-uncle's papers up for auction at Christie's today. Valued at £2m, the papers have been described as a "treasure trove" of unpublished material, ranging from drafts of Conan Doyle's books, through notebooks and family mementoes, right up to letters from people such as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde. But since the sale was announced in March it has, as Foley puts it, "stirred up a hornets' nest". One Sherlock Holmes expert, who took the lead in opposing the sale, is dead. Others, such as Owen Dudley Edwards, a biographer of Conan Doyle, are calling for the Government to intervene and ensure the papers go to the British Library.

The dispute centres on the provenance of items in the Christie's sale. 50-year-old Richard Lancelyn Green, the country's leading Conan Doyle scholar, was convinced they included material from the estate of Conan Doyle's daughter Dame Jean Bromet, which had been willed to the British Library after her death in 1997. He took his concerns to The Times, which printed an article based on them. But events took a tragic Holmesian turn a few days later on 27 March when Lancelyn Green was found dead at his flat in Kensington. The Times noted he had been "in an overwrought state" when he contacted its reporter, and had mentioned that he had said, "something might happen to me."

As a result, speculation over the papers intensified - and it was not quietened when the Westminster Coroner Dr Paul Knapman returned an open verdict at Lancelyn Green's inquest on 23 April. Although agreeing that suicide was the most likely reason for the scholar's demise, Dr Knapman remained uncertain. Both he and Professor Sir Colin Berry, President of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, who conducted the post mortem, expressed surprise at the unusual nature of the death, which had involved his garrotting himself with a shoe lace, which had been tightened by a wooden spoon.

Foley first heard of Lancelyn Green's death while staying with "Sherlockian friends" in France. "I was horrified," he says. "The means of his death was awful and the effect on his family must have been dreadful." But Foley is adamant his critics have the wrong end of the stick. Confusion has arisen, he says, because not one but two estates are involved. The British Library is indeed getting its bequest from Dame Jean, but the Christie's sale consists of the papers of her sister-in-law, Anna Conan Doyle, widow of Sir Arthur's son Adrian.

When Conan Doyle died in 1930 he had left piles of papers strewn around Windlesham, his Sussex house. These were gathered together a decade later, after the death of his widow (also called Jean), by his playboy son Adrian, who was his literary executor.

By the 1960s Adrian was ensconced in Château de Lucens in Switzerland, where he lived lavishly with his Danish wife Anna. This was where Charles Foley, aged 10, first encountered the papers; his father Innes, a retired army Major and son of Conan Doyle's sister Ida, was asked to help catalogue them.

For a year young Foley lived in unaccustomed luxury at the château, surrounded by playthings such as a rare Ferrari 250GTO. Then his father fell out with Adrian and returned to Gloucestershire where, true to the family's spiritualist strain, he worked in a Rudolph Steiner community.

Conan Doyle "slipped to the back" of Foley's mind until, in the 1980s, while studying for an MSc in astrophysics in London, he decided to contact his cousin, Dame Jean, who had been head of the Women's Royal Air Force. "I rang her up and more or less invited myself to tea." Being as she was childless, she was delighted to find a family member who could act as executor of her estate.

Independently of this, in 1991, Foley received an unexpected call informing him that he had been left a legacy in the will of Adrian's widow Anna, whom he had known as a boy in Switzerland. He was astonished to learn he was one of three heirs to her estate.

Before long, the question arose about what to do with Conan Doyle's original papers, which had been moved to a London vault. Adrian had sold items relating to Sherlock Holmes, but the core of the personal papers remained. Sir Arthur's widow had left them to her three children, Adrian, Jean and Dennis, who showed little interest and who had since died, along with his heirs.

So, in the mid-1990s, this collection was owned jointly by the elderly Dame Jean and by Anna's estate. Since the family had a history of disputes, particularly over literary copyrights, both parties were advised to resolve who owned what.

After lists were prepared, Foley says he and Anna's fellow heirs met in Dame Jean's London flat. Deferring to her seniority, they asked her to take her pick. "She said 'I'll have A,B,C, and P,Q,R.' Her lawyer later physically put these items into separate boxes and carried them away. The transaction was recorded in a proper deed of assignment and partition. One irony was that she had legal advice and we didn't." Dame Jean's choice (which amounted to two out of 15 boxes) included pieces of manuscripts, a commonplace book and around 800 letters which Conan Doyle had written to his mother. Foley says these are in the process of going to the British Library. The remainder is owned by him and his cousins - the material in the Christie's sale. He adds that Dame Jean's selection "was not done on any basis of volume or value. She had what she wanted."

Lancelyn Green claimed he had seen items in the auction at Dame Jean's house. Foley says this is impossible since they were stored in boxes. Sadly Lancelyn Green was tantalisingly unspecific. After discussion with several of his friends, I have identified two items he thought contentious - a manuscript of the Stark Munro Letters - an early semi-autobiographical novel - and a rare pamphlet The Immortal Memory. Foley says the Stark Munro Letters manuscript is not being sold, only a fragment, while there could have been several copies of the pamphlet.

The sale has taken Sherlockians by surprise. Foley says he and his cousins were advised to dispose of the material at auction but, in retrospect, he admits they might have acted differently. Should he not have made more effort to ensure this important bequest stayed together, perhaps at the British Library? Was this not what Dame Jean would have wanted and, ultimately, Conan Doyle?

Foley says his cousin Jean might have liked this, but did not request it. Contrary to rumour, she was in firm mind until her death. As for suggestions that he himself is profiting, he adds: "I ask anybody in my position: would they have given it to the nation?"

But according to Christie's auctioneer Tom Lamb, this is, "the story of all literary archives. Families have always sold the papers of their ancestors. If Conan Doyle or his widow had wanted the papers to be part of the national heritage they would taken steps at their deaths." He has seen the legal documentation and it is "good".

The British Library still wants to read this paperwork, but appears resigned. If it is to acquire these historic Conan Doyle items, it will need to bid at the sale.

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