Dutch art sleuth finds rare stolen copy of ‘Prince of Persian poets’
A stolen 15th-century book by the famed Persian poet Hafez has been recovered by a Dutch art detective after an international “race against time” that drew the alleged interest of Iran’s secret service.
The gold-leafed volume, worth about €1m (R16m) was found to be missing from the collection of an Iranian antiques dealer after his death in Germany in 2007.
It sparked a decade-long search for one of the oldest surviving copies of the Divan of Hafez — the collected works of the poet who remains extremely popular in Iran and has inspired artists worldwide.
But Arthur Brand, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Art World” for tracing a series of lost works, finally tracked down the tome via the murky stolen arts underworld.
Hafez — full name Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz Shirazi — is one of the best known mystical bards.
The theft of the manuscript, which dates from 1462 to 1463, was discovered by the family of book dealer Djafar Ghazy, after he died in an old-age home in Munich in 2007.
While going through Ghazy’s computer, they realised he had in fact collected hundreds of ancient manuscripts — but that they were all gone.
In 2011, German police recovered 174 of them while raiding the home of another Iranian pensioner who had befriended Ghazy.
“But the most important piece, one of the earliest and most accurate copies of the famous Divan of Hafez was still missing,” said Brand.
German police announced a €50,000 (R800,000) reward for the book to be returned in 2016 but there was still no trace of it until late 2018.
Brand then received a phone call from an Iranian dealer, asking him to “urgently” meet him in Germany.
“The man told me he was visited by two officials who said they were ‘linked to the Iranian embassy’.”
The men — alleged by the dealer to be Iranian secret agents — told him to “report any news of the missing Divan”, Brand said.
Iran had already shown an interest in the case, saying it would take “all legal means” to get back the manuscripts that were found in 2011, after Germany gave two back but decided most of the rest were legally owned by the collector.
“After my informant was contacted, I knew Iran was also looking for the missing Divan and I started a race against time to see if I could find it first, as the book belonged to Ghazy’s family,” Brand said.
The Dutchman then flew to London to meet an unnamed man who confessed he had seen it as a friend of his had sold it to a major buyer.
By then Iranian agents were also in London asking questions about the manuscript.
By now afraid, the buyer flew to Paris to demand his money back from the original seller.
But Brand persuaded him to go back to London and finally the collector handed over the book via an intermediary in late 2019.
Brand said he would travel to Munich next Wednesday to return the Divan to German police.
“The next steps are currently being discussed together with the heirs of Ghazy,” police spokesperson Ludwig Waldinger said.