A librarian for the pages of history

Posted on June 12, 2014

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Laurens Hesselink has made it his life’s work to preserve priceless ancient books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century

As written for Gulf News (June 12, 2014)

Laurens Hesselink at his stand at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Laurens Hesselink at his stand at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Looking after what was quite possibly the most valuable stand at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, was renowned antiquarian Laurens Hesselink and owner of Antiquariaat Forum, connoisseurs of rare books and ancient manuscripts based in the Netherlands.

My interview with Hesselink took place within the confines of an artful setup of wooden panels and glass displays teasing visitors with a look-but-don’t-touch printed glimpse into history. In the mesmerising presence of man’s first discoveries, the lurking silhouette of a security guard watched over its €10 million (Dh50 million) worth of contents; hundreds of records dating as far back as the 15th century, ranging from reports of historic sea voyages to unknown (at the time) lands, to illustrated documentation of the anatomies of various animal species. Fading written exchanges between war heroes and leaders shared shelf space with dog-eared tomes on medicinal discoveries; a poignant assemblage of the many painstaking efforts that led us to where we are and what we know today.

Among the collection of priceless rarities on display was a gem titled “Itinerarium Portugallensium”, printed in Milan in the year 1508, containing the travel records of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s expedition through the Strait of Hormuz to the Sheikhdom of Julfar (which today we know as the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah). More importantly, this is the first known printed reference to the Arabian Gulf region, illustrated with the earliest map to call the Gulf “Sinus Arabicus” instead of “Sinus Persicus.”

Montalboddo, Fracanzano da. Itinerarium Portugallensium e Lusitania in Indiam et inde... occidentem et demum ad aquilonem. [Milan, J. A. Scinzenzeler], 1508.  The first known printed reference to the Arabian Gulf

Montalboddo, Fracanzano da. Itinerarium Portugallensium e Lusitania in Indiam et inde… occidentem et demum ad aquilonem. [Milan, J. A. Scinzenzeler], 1508. The first known printed reference to the Arabian Gulf

So how does one get involved in the business of buying and selling rare books?

“Well, you can’t just enrol in a rare books university,” laughs Hesselink. “It was my father who founded the company in 1970, after having worked a summer as a young man in an auction house. Having developed an appreciation for valuable books, he then decided to start his own antiquarian bookselling business; with an initial personal collection of just a handful of books, it has now grown to what is now a library of 8,000 to 10,000 pieces.”

Hesselink developed the same interest quite late. A brief stint at a software company left him disillusioned with corporate life. Noticing his father’s contentment with the work he immersed himself in was what drove the two to become business partners. Antiquariaat Forum is now a globally well-established enterprise, having even contributed to collections of the world’s most-respected institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, the Dutch Royal Library, the British Library, Emirates Center of Strategic Research (ECSSR), Qatar Foundation, Rijksmuseum and many more.

Hesselink has since taken over the firm, along with acquiring the skills that come with it. “There is no set training for the work that we do. Appraising, maintaining and trading in antiques are all skills you learn on the job, through reading, researching, buying and analysing. You also learn a lot from your customers and suppliers.

And with this profession you are never really finished learning. There is always a book you have not seen. You can learn everything there is to know about accounting and computer programming, but people have been writing letters ever since they could, and since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1465, millions of books have been published — in a lifetime you will never be able to see them all. Every book is a discovery.”

I did however manage to wrangle out a crash course in manuscript evaluation.

“The most important factor which determines the value of a book is its provenance. Was it part of a royal collection or from the libraries of nobility? Does it bear a coat of arms? Only next would we assess its condition. Is the book complete? Is it in its original binding? Is the paper handmade or printed? Then finally we assess the quality of its contents. You could have a book with illustrations in black and white, or naturally even more valuable, one hand-coloured with gold and silver.

When it comes to dating, most already will be, but medieval manuscripts are most often not. You have to look for hints in the script, the calligraphy, and if it is illustrated, you can try to find out the name of the artist and through that find out the time period of his life and then be able to estimate on having established the dates during which he worked.”

Much like the voyagers in his manuscripts, Hesselink spends much of his time travelling between book and antique fairs across the world.

Having just returned from New York and Paris, this is Antiquariaat Forum’s 7th year returning to Abu Dhabi, and promises a presence in the Emirates again later this year at the Sharjah International Book Fair. Sales in the region have been profitable it seems, with a keen interest from buyers of region-specific valuables.

Some items of interest include the first manuscript atlas of the Islamic World, commissioned by the Topkapi Palace of Istanbul for the Ottoman court, the recorded personal narrative of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s visit to Makkah and Medina in the late 1800s, an inscribed copy by Burton himself (worth €45,000) as various editions of Ludovico de Varthema, the first non-Muslim to enter the Holy City (performing the Haj, disguised as a Muslim), and the first Latin edition of the Quran, making it accessible for the first time to Western scholars — “Machumetis saracenorum principis” compiled by Theodor Bibliander in 1543 (€35,000).

But the most valuable piece in his entire collection, says Hesselink, is a 42-page manuscript by Karl Marx, priced at a cool €2.5 million, a prize that rests back in his library in the Netherlands.

The preservation and transportation of his treasure trove is no easy feat, I am told.

“I actually live on a farm back in the Netherlands, and our library was initially a large barn which we have now transformed for our purposes. We store the book in our special rare book room, which maintains a constant temperature at all times of around 22-23°C. If it is cold it usually isn’t a problem, for the real issue is dry heat. We employ the use of special vaporisers, which blow a little steam in the air so that the binding doesn’t dry out.

“When we travel, the books have to suffer a little bit. The good thing about books is that the colours and print within are maintained and stay beautiful because the book is always closed. Paintings and exposed print can fade because of exposure to sunlight. For a book only the spine can fade a little bit, but naturally they can be quite heavy. Oleographs are easier to transport because they are thin and light but are in comparison more difficult to maintain.

“Also of course, as with any other library, there is the danger of silver fish which we constantly have to keep an eye out for.”

Hesselink confesses that it is indeed difficult to not get too attached to particular pieces from his repository, but takes comfort in knowing that every sale only brings the potential of adding another valuable to the collection.

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