The illuminated Divan of Hafez, a precious manuscript by the eminent 15th-century Persian poet coming under the hammer at Sotheby’s next month, is breathtaking. One of the earliest copies of the collected poems, its gold-leafed pages bear impossibly intricate illustrations by the calligrapher Shaykh Mahmud Pir Budaqi alongside Hafez’s ghazals, sonnet-like verses that intertwine ideas of love, longing, and loss.
Adding to the Divan’s aura is its dramatic provenance: the manuscript was one of several objects stolen from the trove of the Germany-based Islamic art collector Jafar Ghazi, who died in 2007. Though hundreds of the stolen works were recovered by police in 2011, the Divan’s whereabouts remained a mystery until last year, when Dutch art crime investigator Arthur Brand — who is sometimes referred to as “the Indiana Jones of the art world” — tracked it down.
In late 2018, Brand told Agence Free Press (AFP) that he was contacted by an Iranian art dealer who had received a call from Iranian embassy officials interested in finding the Divan.
“After my informant was contacted, I knew that 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,” said Brand, speaking to AFP.
The Dutch detective made good on his pledge, following a trail of evidence to a man in London who had acquired the Divan in Paris, unbeknownst of its problematic provenance. According to Brand, the buyer was “shocked and furious” to discover he was sold stolen goods, returning to Paris to attempt a refund. He eventually agreed to hand the manuscript to Brand and the German authorities.
“If he succeeded, the Divan would disappear again and probably forever,” Brand told AFP. “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,” he said.
The manuscript made its way back to Ghazi’s rightful heirs, who decided to sell it: the book is now coming up at Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World and India sale in London on April 1, where it carries an estimate of £80,000 to 120,000 (~$98,522 to $14,7783). According to the Guardian, the house has sold around 60 other manuscripts from Ghazi’s collection with notable success; most have at least doubled their pre-sale estimates.
It’s possible the manuscript will shatter those records. According to Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, an associate professor of Persian literature at Oxford University, the Divan is “one of a handful still in existence.”
“It’s an extremely early edition — although not the earliest — which would make it very rare and valuable,” he told AFP.