Anyone searching for clues about the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes need not be confined to his head-quarters on London’s Baker Street.
Deep in an underground cavern at the University of Minnesota lies the world’s largest collection of Holmes memorabilia - a cache sure to expand with material from the new “Sherlock Holmes” movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as the pipe-puffing supersleuth.
To many, it’s a mystery how this trove of tens of thousands of books, toys, games, posters and recordings - from copies of the Holmes stories owned by the last empress of Russia to an original manuscript page of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” - ended up at a Midwestern university, half a world away from the foggy London streets of Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The answer is elementary, according to Tim Johnson, curator of special collections and rare books at the University of Minnesota Libraries: a “happy series of accidents” involving a retired university librarian, a Nobel Prize laureate and a Holmes fan who took a “vacuum cleaner” approach to collecting.
“People think the Holmes collection ought to be in London. So it’s ‘Why Minnesota?’ And it’s really just this series of happy events that occurred over time,” Mr. Johnson says.
“Sherlock Holmes,” already out in Britain, is being released Christmas Day in America. Directed by Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), the film stars Mr. Downey (“Iron Man”) as a man-of-action Holmes unraveling a nefarious plot by Lord Blackwood in Victorian England with the help of his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, played by Jude Law.
The Holmes collection in Minnesota has 15,000 to 16,000 volumes, and other pieces bring the archive to 60,000 or more items, Mr. Johnson says. They are kept in a cavern fitted out for storage about 85 feet below ground at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, where temperatures and humidity are controlled.
On metal shelves sit memorabilia including magnifying glasses, an ice-cream carton with a cartoon cow wearing Holmes’ iconic deerstalker cap and a pillow with an image of Sherlock Hemlock, a Muppet character from “Sesame Street.”
Los Angeles attorney Les Klinger, who wrote “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” series and was a consultant on the new movie, has donated his papers to the university’s collection.
Other major Holmes or Doyle archives are at Harvard University, the Toronto Public Library and Portsmouth, England.
Mr. Klinger, however, calls Minnesota’s collection the “first stop for anybody doing research because if you’re looking for something, it’s probably in the collection.”
Mr. Johnson says he thinks retired university librarian E.W. McDiarmid, a Holmes fan, “whispered in the ear” of Mr. Johnson’s predecessor that the university ought to have a collection of first-edition Holmes stories.
The school began amassing the Sherlock Holmes Collections in 1974, buying collector James C. Iraldi’s library of Holmes first editions - 160 volumes and a similar number of periodicals. Four years later, Mr. Johnson says, the widow of Mayo Clinic doctor Philip S. Hench donated his Holmes collection.
Hench, who shared the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing cortisone to treat pain in arthritic patients, died in 1965. His Holmes collection was 10 times larger than Iraldi’s - about 1,800 books and 1,500 periodicals - and was “full of amazing rarities,” Mr. Johnson says. That included four copies of “Beeton’s Christmas Annual,” which has the first appearance of Holmes in print, the novella “A Study in Scarlet” from November 1887. Only about 30 copies of Holmes’ debut are known to exist, Mr. Johnson says.
With the donation of the Hench collection, “the Sherlockian world sat up,” Mr. Johnson says. One Holmes fan who visited the university was John Bennett Shaw, a collector from Santa Fe, N.M., who acquired Holmes pop-culture items such as restaurant menus and board games.
“Shaw had the collecting sensibilities of a vacuum cleaner. It was like anything and everything that had to do with Sherlock Holmes, Shaw collected it,” Mr. Johnson says.
The university made Shaw a fellow of the library, and he donated his collection to it in 1993. A sign from Shaw’s front yard reading 221B Baker Street - the London address of Holmes and Watson - stands in the hallway of Andersen Library.
Shaw died in 1994.
Other collections pulled in by the “gravitational field” of the Hench artifacts include the scripts and broadcast recordings of Edith Meiser, an actress and scriptwriter who did Sherlock Holmes radio plays in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The collection is open to the public by appointment and accepts nearly anything people want to donate, Mr. Johnson says.
He echoes Shaw’s philosophy: “Don’t throw it away - send it to me.”