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Dutch art detective finds stolen rare copy of 'Divan' by Hafez, worth €1 million

European tourists visit the tomb of Persian mystic poet Hafez, in Shiraz, September 24, 2014.
European tourists visit the tomb of Persian mystic poet Hafez, in Shiraz, September 24, 2014. © Behrouz Mehr, AFP

Arthur Brand, considered the "Indiana Jones of the art world”, has discovered an exceptional copy of the 15th century Persian poetry collection the "Divan" by Hafez. Iranian authorities had also been on the hunt for it.

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A rare copy of an iconic collection by the Persian poet Hafez was found by a Dutch art expert after a quest through several countries under the watchful eyes of the Iranian authorities. The precious object had disappeared from the collection of an Iranian antique dealer in Germany after he died in 2007.

The work, from the 15th century, inlaid with gold leaf and estimated to be worth around €1 million, is said to be one of the oldest copies of the "Divan", a collection of works by the famous lyrical poet. It measures 21cm by 13cm and consists of 159 handwritten pages.

After years of searching underground for the book, Arthur Brand, nicknamed the Indiana Jones of the art world for his investigative exploits, finally got his hands on the precious manuscript. The object was seen by AFP in an apartment in Amsterdam.

"It's a discovery that means a lot to me, because it's such an important book," said Brand.

According to experts, the calligraphic manuscript found is one of the "few that still exists".

"Even if it is not the oldest, it is an extremely early edition of Hafez's 'Divan', which makes it very rare and valuable," says Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, assistant professor of Persian literature at Oxford University.

Feast of the Persian New Year

Hafez was born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1315. He is believed to have died around 1390. Few details of his life are known but his legacy lives on in his poetry.

His tomb in Iran is visited by thousands of admirers every year and Hafez's "Divan" (also written "Diwan", which means "collection of poetry" in Arabic and Persian) is enthroned in almost every home.

It is traditionally read on the feast of Norouz, the New Year in the Persian calendar. Hafez's work inspired many Westerners, such as the German novelist Goethe and the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The theft of the copy, which dates from 1462-1463, was discovered by the family of bookseller Djafar Ghazy after his death in Munich in 2007. Ghazy had amassed a large collection of Islamic writings during his lifetime, but not all of them could be found.

Although part of the collection was recovered by the German police in 2011, "the most important piece, one of the oldest and most faithful copies of Hafez's famous 'Divan', was still missing," Brand said.

Tehran had promised to use "all legal means" to ensure the return to Iran of all the stolen writings, according to the German media. And the German police announced a €50,000 reward and issued a flyer describing the book in 2016 but there was still no trace of it, until late 2018.

‘Extremely nervous’ man

At the end of 2018, an Iranian art dealer contacted Brand, asking him to come "urgently" to meet him in Germany. The man claimed to have already been approached by Iranian embassy officials.

“My informant was clearly afraid and felt threatened," Brand said. "I knew that Iran was also looking for the missing 'Divan' and I started a race against time to see if I could find him first, because the book belonged to Ghazy's family," he said.

The Dutchman's search led him to London, where he met an unnamed man who was "extremely nervous" at the sight of a cover of the stolen book on the German flyer. He told Brand that he had seen it himself as the manuscript had been sold by a friend of his to an art collector.

"The buyer was shocked and furious. After all, he had been sold a book that was stolen and wanted by everyone, including the Iranian government," Brand said.

The buyer, under pressure from various factors, flew to Paris and tried to recover his money from the seller. But Brand persuaded him to return to London and the book.

The collector finally gave him the book through an intermediary in late 2019. The Dutchman will travel to Munich on Wednesday to hand the book over to the German police. "The next steps are currently being discussed with the heirs" of bookseller Djafar Ghazy, Ludwig Waldinger, a German police spokesman, told AFP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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