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"certain arguments, metallic or otherwise" [COPP] 

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Money figures in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the reader misses some of the point without a reliable answer to the question, "How much is that really?" For North American readers, more specifically: what would the equivalent be in today's US dollars?

How lavish was that £6,000 cheque from the Duke of Holdernesse?

How pricy was that 8d glass of sherry? (Here we get into the messy calculations: twelve pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, so a pound would buy a round of sherry for 30 people at an expensive hotel.)

How "nicely" could Mary Sutherland get along on the annual income of £100 from her trust fund?

The obvious way to address this kind of question is a comparison of canonical sums with today's prices, such as the $18 rock bottom price for a glass of port (sherry doesn't seem to be available) at the Palm Court at New York's Plaza Hotel. 

Unfortunately, no single multiplier seems to work, especially for the luckless researcher who tries to take into account incomes (Mycroft Holmes's "four hundred and fifty pounds a year") as well as prices. It does appear that salaries were low in the Victorian era— but one must remember that hardly anybody paid income tax, and that there were no iPhones, cable packages, sushi or gym memberships to gobble up a modest middle-class income.

Three or four decades ago, I used that sort of hand-waving calculation to proclaim that £1 in Sherlock Holmes's era had the purchasing power of $100 in modern times. That made the Baker Street Irregulars' daily shilling the equivalent of a $5 bill. 

Later, as prices kept rising, I amended my rule of thumb to say that the pound was worth $120 ("Canonical Currency in Present-Day Terms"), at the unfortunate cost of complicated mental arithmetic when the subject was, say, Watson's wound pension of eleven shillings and sixpence a day. That would work out to (brings calculator into play) $2,070 a month, not generous but unfortunately plausible.

Other enthusiasts have done the calculation in other ways, such as converting the 11/6 (or the Duke's £6,000, as the case may be) to US dollars at the traditional rate of $5 to £1, and inflating the result by the 125-year inflation factor of about 3,000 per cent. 

Alternatively, one could calculate inflation first and transatlantic currency exchange afterwards (the pound is worth about $1.40 US these days). The calculation is a simple one, as Sherlock Holmes mendaciously said in "Silver Blaze."

A Value Proposition

Recently, however, it struck me that there's another way to look at the matter. After all, the pound, the basic unit of British currency, is tied firmly to the value of precious metals in two different ways.

First of all, it's the pound sterling. If you go back far enough £1 was the negotiable value of a "Troy pound" (373 grams) of silver. 

And second, it was in Victorian times almost entirely represented by a gold coin, a "sovereign", that wasn't just worth a pound, it literally was a pound. A sovereign, according to several trustworthy books of reference, contained 123.27 grains, or 7.98 grams, of gold (see also "The Curious Incident of the Guinea Coin").

The prices of precious metals are volatile these days, to say the least. Over the past two years (which include the COVID-19 era and its severe threats to the world economy), silver has sold for as little as 37 cents per gram, as much as 94 cents. In 2020-21, the wildness has moderated a little, and the average price has been about 80 cents a gram. Multiply the weight by the price, and you'll find that a pound of silver should cost about $298 US.

Similar calculations work with gold, though Neil Gibson, the Gold King, would be glad to know that the swings are not as extreme. 

The price per gram has been about $56 a gram over the past two years, in a range from about $47 to $67. Multiply that $56 by the sovereign's weight of just under 8 grams, and you get $447 US as the value of the gold that Irene Adler gave Sherlock Holmes at her wedding.

Why aren't these numbers the same? Well, that's the effect of "the bimetallic question", that international economic conundrum on which Mycroft Holmes was available to be consulted. 

But either of the figures, $298 or $447, is a plausible candidate for the "real" value of an 1895 pound in today's American money. Which shines a whole new light on the "seven pounds thirteen" found on the body of Enoch Drebber, Mrs. Maberley's £5,000 trip around the world, and even the 55 shillings (just short of three pounds) that Holmes paid for his Stradivarius. 

More than you'd think, more than you'd think.

Editor's note: Also see "The Bimetallic Question in The Valley of Fear," via The Fourth Garrideb

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