‘I just had to save my life’s work’

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica on Amsterdam’s Bloemstraat will be reopening. Businessman Joost Ritman barely managed to prevent the loss of the world-renowned collection of ancient books following a financial conflict. ‘Apparently a score had to be settled somehow.’

Article by Henk Schutten- Photo by Jean-Pierre Jans

It was cold that day on 12 November when the Friesland Bank seized his library. Joost Ritman (70) remembers it well. There had been a frost the night before and a thin layer of snow had settled when a group of men hired by the bank gained access to the library building on Bloemstraat and changed the locks. Staff members and Ritman himself were no longer allowed entrance to the library. The seizure of the library was a low point in the history of  the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. The future of the internationally unparallelled collection of printed books and manuscripts of Hermetic philosophy and mysticism was now at stake. Ritman had incurred large debts and his most valuable manuscripts were at risk of being auctioned off by Sotheby’s inLondon.

‘Of course I have made mistakes’, Ritman owns a year later. ‘But they were inevitable because I had to save my life’s work.  It was a financial conflict at heart. The library only cost me money, it always has. In 2008 the crisis broke out and the costs mounted. I had been planning to sell off parts of the library and repay the Friesland Bank for some time. But the crisis put me in a fix and I ran out of time. Nobody needs to be told how these things happen.’

Not for a second did he fear for the future of his library, he says. ‘Never. And I’m not putting the blame on anyone. I take full responsibility for what has happened these past two years.’

He sold his share in his own firm, a supplier of plastic disposables for the airline companies. On 15 December he will be retiring. The next day is reserved for the festive reopening of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. ‘I have hived off all my assets, my firm and my real estate. I have commissioned Sotheby’s to auction a part of my books and I have fulfilled my obligations towards Friesland Bank. The library is no longer encumbered with debts.’

Every collection begins with its first acquisition. For Ritman it was Jacob Böhme’s Aurora. ‘It’s a description of someone entering a new world. I was 23 and I still have the book. That sense of awakening, that inner spiritual search of man, is to be found on every page of every book in my library.’

Ritman’s interest in the spiritual life and the humanities was fed by his parents, who were Rosicrucians, members of an esoteric Christian community. Some people are born with an inner compass clearly pointing in one direction. It all begins with self-awareness and of course the environment in which you are raised. This city, Amsterdam, has been of vital importance. Since the seventeenth century it has been a haven for freethinkers, harbouring men and women who were persecuted in their own countries.

His collection is not a hobby that has gone wild, as some claim. ‘It’s not about the books, it’s about passing on the knowledge of a millennia-old tradition. For me, time doesn’t end with yesterday. We are standing on the shoulders of the people who have lived before us, great thinkers and spiritual heirs. This library bears testimony to a tradition of twelve thousand years of Western spirituality, which has written records dating back five thousand years.

If you want to show how it all connects, you also have to come up with the sources. The library is the only place in the world which follows this course. It was truly a pioneer’s work.

Ritman, born on Amsterdam’s Bloemgracht in 1941, converted his father’s small polishing firm in the local Jordaan to a multimillion  business supplying plastic disposables to the airline industry. ‘I’ve been flying all over the world since I started my my company. We have direct relations with some 350 airline companies. There isn’t a place in the world where I haven’t been. I have always been able to combine my business travels with visits to antiquarian booksellers, collectors, auctions. I went looking for those sources everywhere. Not a day has passed in the last fifty years when I didn’t buy a book.’

Ritman has had to let go of many treasured possessions in the past year, like thefirst edition of the Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a collection of philosophical texts in Greek, which is the nucleus of his collection. ‘I bought it in Paris in 1987. It was auctioned this year in London. But it isn’t quite gone. I’ve still got a fine copy downstairs. The Corpus Hermeticum has gone through many editions and reprints before 1600. I had seven of these. I asked professors Gilles Quispel and Roelof van den Broek to provide a translation in 1990. More than 12,000 copies have sold since that time. So what have I lost? If you share a discovery, doesn’t it belong to everyone? The secret of multiplying is to share.’

The auctioning of the Rouchefoucauld Grail, a medieval Grail romance, also affected him. The manuscript raised almost three million euros at an auction of Sotheby’s inLondon. ‘When you’re in the middle of a crisis, you have to make a choice. I wanted to continue the library in a time of crisis. The front door remained open to all.’

Until November last year. When Friesland Bank was informed of the impending auction of the Grail manuscript, it applied for seizure of the library. Not a month later the newly installed liberal party state secretary of Culture Halbe Zijlstra ordered the transferral of the books which the State had purchased a few years before from the Ritman collection to the Royal Library inThe Hague. Ritman had twice borrowed money on his collection. The future of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica hung by a thin thread.

Ritman represents a world which is closed to many people, he says. ‘It provokes aggression. There has always been a lot of resistance against this way of thinking. Many writers of books collected in this library have been persecuted and killed and their  works have been destroyed. What has happened to me and my library is the price we have to pay for our opinions and principles.’

There were plans to rehouse Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in the House with the Heads, a magnificent seventeenth-century mansion on Keizersgracht. Ritman bought the canal house from the city council of Amsterdam in 2007 to house his library, which would have the room to grow into ‘an embassy of the free spirit’.  The plan was to open the library on the new premises in 2010 following large-scale rebuilding. Prestigious names joined forces with the project, such as Willem Levelt, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, Wim van Drimmelen, emeritus director of the Royal Library and many prominent members of the academic world. A new foundation has now been called into life, led amongst others by former Culture minister Hedy d’Ancona, notary public Maarten Meijer and Ritman’s daughter Mirjam. ‘Many people active in the old foundation are still very committed to the library but are no longer serving in an active capacity. There is still enormous goodwill.’

The future of the House with the Heads is still undecided. ‘I still own the house. I first want to concentrate on reopening the library. None of the plans have been shelved.’

Isn’t it painful that part of his life’s work is now deposited in the Royal Library inThe Hague? ‘Well, I don’t think any of those books are affected by it. In 2005 I made a decision together with the government to divide the library. The state-owned part, now in The Hague, comprises some 4,500 books, only twenty per cent of what we have here. There are at present some 23,000 books in the library on Bloemstraat. I’m picking up from where things were stopped a year ago.’

Still, the collection is at its best when it can act as a unity, he says.  ’Some people will now have to divide their time travelling between Amsterdam and The Hague. But the research function of the library as a whole remains unchallenged. I’ve decided to let things run their course. I don’t want to get into that discussion. In my opinion the world of thought that I have brought together belongs in Amsterdam. But I’m not going to press the issue.’

It was his intention eventually to transfer the entire collection to the State. ‘Go ask the state secretary why that hasn’t been happening’, Ritman smiles. He does not think of the library in terms of personal property but as a community asset: ‘I’m donating the library to society, but it remains to be seen under which conditions. I’m not the only one who has a say in the matter.’

He has always received the full support of the city of Amsterdam and of members of the national and international academic world. Many of them have pointed out in vain in the past year that Ritman never acted out of personal interest and never made money out of his collection.  ‘The crisis caused the bank to withdraw its continuing support for someone not only interested in running a business but also committed to bringing something to the community. Apparently a score had to be settled somehow.’ Ritman prefers to leave it at this.

On 15 December he will be taking leave of the company he built up in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk. ‘We’ve had a fantastic year, with 25% growth. All debts have been cleared. And the library will remain in Amsterdam, perhaps here on Bloemstraat, though preferably in the House with the Heads. That’s what really drives me. The present time is a tremendous chaos. The library wants to urge people to find their inner compass, both inside and outside.’


Translation of an article by Henk Schutten in Het Parool,8 December 2011, pp. 28-29