Stolen Collection of Persian Poetry Found With Help of ‘Indiana Jones of the Art World’ Goes on Auction
The 15th-century edition of Hafez’s “Divan” will be sold at Sotheby’s next month
The 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, known for a collection of philosophical and mystical verse titled the Divan, is one of Iran’s most celebrated literary figures. Born in Shiraz in approximately 1325, the poet is revered for his mastery of the ghazal, a form of Arabic verse centered on love and loss. Today, his tomb is a popular destination for modern-day fans seeking to pay their respects.
Come next month, a luxurious manuscript of Hafez’s seminal work will head to auction at Sotheby’s, bringing an end to the dramatic story of the text’s theft and rediscovery.
The manuscript up for sale is an especially important edition of the Divan. Dated to 1462, it is one of the earliest known copies of the poetry collection, reports Alison Flood for the Guardian. The text is dedicated to a leading patron of 15th-century Asian book art: Pir Budaq, a prince of the Kara Koyunlu federation who is credited with transforming Baghdad into a major cultural center. What’s more, the manuscript is beautiful in and of itself, filled with elaborate gilded designs and illustrations.
This unique text previously belonged to Jafar Ghazi, a Munich-based collector of Islamic art. When Ghazi died in 2007, his family began sorting through his collection, only to realize that many of his manuscripts, including the gold-embellished Divan, were missing.
According to the Telegraph’s Henry Samuel, authorities recovered 174 of the stolen works during a 2011 “raid on the home of another Iranian pensioner who had befriended [Ghazi].” But the Divan—arguably the most precious of the missing manuscripts—was nowhere to be found.
A major break in the case came in 2018, when a man known as the “Indiana Jones of the art world” arrived on the scene. Arthur Brand, a Dutch art historian and investigator, has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including the recovery of a stolen Picasso swiped from a billionaire’s yacht in 1999.
Speaking with Agence-France Presse, Brand says he received a call from an Iranian art dealer who asked him to “urgently” meet in Munich in late 2018.
The dealer told Brand that a friend of his had sold the manuscript to an art collector. After reaching out to various contacts, Brand’s investigation brought him to London, where he learned that a prominent Iranian collector based there had purchased the looted text. The owner, says Brand to artnet News’ Sarah Cascone, “was flabbergasted. He was shocked that he had a stolen book in his possession.”
Initially, the buyer hoped to try and retrieve the money he paid for the manuscript, but Brand convinced him to simply hand the text over to German authorities.
“If he succeeded, the Divan would disappear again and probably forever,” says Brand to the Guardian. “He had bought a book without knowing that it was stolen but by trying to hand it back to the fence, he would incriminate himself.”
Ghazi’s heirs have opted to sell the manuscript, as they have done with many of the other works in his collection. The text is expected to fetch between £80,000 and £120,000 (around $103,400 to $155,000).
“There’s a huge reverence for Hafez in Iran and globally,” Sotheby’s specialist Benedict Carter tells the Guardian.
Finding high quality copies of the Divan is “rare enough,” Carter adds, but the manuscript’s beauty and its connection to the court of Pir Budaq makes it all the more special.