January 23, 2020

600 year old “Divan of Hafez” returned after over a decade on the underground market


The Persian poet Hafez lived from 1315-1390. It is believed the missing volume of his collected poetry was made in 1462 or 1463.

When an Iranian antiques dealer died in Germany in 2007, his family realized that many rare manuscripts were missing was from his collection. By 2011 the bulk of them had been tracked down and recovered by authorities.

But one treasured item, a gold-leafed volume of the Persian poet Hafez’s collected works, known as the “Divan of Hafez,” perhaps the centerpiece of the collection, remained unaccounted for.

As Jan Hennop at the International Business Times reports, this was a job for the “Indiana Jones of the Art World,” known less thrillingly as Dutch stolen art investigator, Arthur Brand. So Brand set off to sniff out the $1.1 million literary treasure.

But he wasn’t alone.

When an Iranian dealer informed Brant in 2018 that the Iranian government had been asking around about the volume, the art sleuth felt the stakes get higher–after all, he believed the volume should rightfully be returned to the original dealer’s family from whom it had gone missing.

From there the race to the denouement has the distinct feel of an international thriller. Hennop writes:

The Dutchman then flew to London to meet an unnamed man “who became extremely nervous” when shown the flyer of the missing book, and 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, Brand said.

“The buyer was shocked and furious. After all, he was sold a stolen book and now everybody including the Iranian government was looking for it,” Brand said.

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 will travel to Munich [this week] to return the Divan to German police.

German police and the dealer’s heirs are currently discussing next steps for this rare volume of high academic and cultural importance.

For the spellbinding scene of a literary festival held in the burial garden of Hafez, we must insist you read The Immortals of Tehran, coming this spring from Melville House.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.