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The obsessions and follies of the charismatic Joost Ritman

The fate of esoteric books and illuminated manuscripts hangs in the balance

Amsterdam

It looks as though the Dutch government is about to cause a unique collection of manuscripts and rare books to be dispersed. Joost Ritman was until just a few months ago chairman and owner of the Ster group which, with an annual turnover of DFl. 300 million (£109 million; $153 million), specialised in disposable plastic dinner-services for airline companies. During the 1960s he had started collecting on a small scale, specialising in manuscripts and old editions covering the various branches of esoteric philosophy. Meanwhile his company was flourishing. But after a narrow escape in 1985 from the clutches of the Dutch Fiscal Investigation Service, Ritman emerged, according to sources close to him, with a sense of invincibility. That is when his spending on art and manuscripts began in earnest. In just a few years he amassed what is considered by many to be the finest library of books and illuminated manuscripts on esoteric philosophy. To house the collection and make it accessible to the public, he founded the now famous Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. Another company called Dutch Renaissance Art Amsterdam BV was set up to administer his other impressive collections. But soon things started to go wrong. Ritman's collection of silver, an outstanding selection of early Netherlandish maiolica, paintings by Rysdaal, Gerard Dou, Jan Steen and so forth, as well as the largest private collection of Rembrandt prints, was impounded by Ritman's main creditors, the ING bank, who were said to fear seizure by the Dutch Inland Revenue. In June they secretly transported the whole collection to Christie's in London. Their fear was not unfounded, as the Ministry of Finance seized the contents of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica at the end of July and threatened to sell off a large part of the collection if Ritman did not produce the DFl. 5 million (£1.8 million; $2.8 million) in VAT he owed on the books he had purchased.

Ritman paid generous prices for the items he wanted. He recently acquired the engraved copper plate of Rembrandt's "Faust" for around DFl. 375,000 (£135,000; $204,000). In 1990 his purchases reached a peak at around DFl. 106 million (38 million; $58 million). These purchases were all made from the operational profits on the otherwise healthy Ster Group rather than on the same company's much lower net profits of around DFl. 10 million (£3.6 million; $5.4 million) annually. This meant that the company itself had to rely more and more on loans from banks to compensate for the lack of investment capital. The interest due on these loans finally brought the company to its knees.

Ritman was ousted from his job by the main creditors who installed their own crisis managers. These are now trying to save the company from complete collapse. The two collections are at this moment valued at a total of DFl. 300 million (£108 million; $163 million), but if they are auctioned off in one go they would at most fetch a third of that amount, and with the total debts of the firm standing at DFl. 512 million (£185m; $278m), the creditors and the Inland Revenue are in a real quandary as to what to do.

Why did the banks not intervene earlier? To answer that question one has to turn to the person behind the name. Ritman was a charismatic and immensely popular director, paying high salaries to his workforce, and persuasive and convincing in the board-room. The top man of the NMB bank, which has since merged and changed its name to the ING bank, apparently trusted Ritman implicitly, allowing him to take out loans even after a committee set up by the bank specifically to investigate Ritman's company had advised against it. Ritman similarly managed to impose his will on the accountant whose creative endeavours to make the figures add up broke down in 1992, when he finally refused to sign the accounts.

The collection of Dutch art currently at Christie's in London is not to be auctioned off for the moment, says a spokesman for the ING bank, while they seek advice as to what to do with it. As far as the library is concerned, the Office for Fine Arts believes that it will not be possible to add the collection to the list of unexportable national treasures. They have not commented on the greater need to keep the collection intact, wherever it might be located. Recently a top civil servant of the Inland Revenue was interviewed on Dutch television and said that "the Inland Revenue is not a culturally barbarous institution", but he repeated the threat to sell off the core of the collection if the tax bill was not met on time.