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Dutch art detective 'beats Iranian secret service' to recover stolen ancient Persian poems in London

Henry Samuel
A Dutch art detective has recovered a stolen 15th century book of poems by Hafiz's, saying he beat Iranian secret agents to it - AFP

A Dutchman dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the art world” has recovered a famed 15th century Persian book of poems after an “international race against time” that saw him allegedly pip the Iranian secret service to the coveted work in London.

Art detective Arthur Brand said the find sealed a tense denouement to a decade long-hunt for one of the oldest surviving copies of the Divan of Hafez - dubbed “the Prince of Persian poets” and who remains a household name in Iran.

Worth around €1 million (£850m), the gold-leafed volume of collected works was found to be missing from the collection of an Iranian antiques dealer after his death in Germany in 2007.

Along with Rumi, Hafez - full name Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz Shirazi - is one of the best known mystical bards who inspired artists around the world.

The work was stolen from an Iranian collector of manuscripts who died in 2007 Credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD /AFP 

The theft of the manuscript, which dates from 1462 to 1463, was discovered by the family of book dealer Djafar Ghazy.

Combing his computer after his death in Munich, they found out that he had amassed hundreds of ancient manuscripts only to realise they had all vanished.

German police recovered 174 of them in a 2011 raid on the home of another Iranian pensioner who had befriended Mr Ghazy.

They handed two back to Iran, deciding that the rest were legally owned by the collector.

"But the most important piece, one of the earliest and most accurate copies of the famous 'Divan of Hafez', was still missing," said Mr Brand, an art detective with an impressive track record in recovering lost masterpieces - including last year a Picasso stolen from a Saudi sheikh's yacht on the French Riviera in 1999.

German police announced a €50,000 reward and issued a flyer describing the book in 2016 but no leads emerged until late 2018.

By then, Iran had activated its intelligence networks to seek to track down the elusive work, said Mr Brand who received a phone call from an Iranian dealer, asking the Dutchman to "urgently" meet him in Germany.

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand last year recovered a Picasso stolen from a Saudi sheikh's yacht on the French Riviera in 199 Credit:  AFP/ STRINGER

"The man told me he was visited by two officials who said they were 'linked to the Iranian embassy’,” he told AFP. The men - alleged by the dealer to be Iranian secret agents - told him to "report any news of the missing Divan". 

"My informant was clearly scared, felt threatened and decided to call me into the case," he said.

At that point, he added, “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”.

The Dutchman then flew to London where “an extremely nervous” unnamed man recognised the flyer of the missing book, saying he had seen it as a friend of his had sold it to a major buyer.

Iranian agents were also in London asking questions about the manuscript, said Mr Brand.

"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," he added.

Fearful of Iran’s involvement, the buyer flew to Paris to demand his money back from the original seller, but Mr Brand persuaded him to return to London and finally the collector handed over the book via an intermediary in late 2019.

The Dutchman said he would travel to Munich next Wednesday to return the Divan to German police, who were in discussion with the heirs of Mr Ghazy over “the next steps”.