The Miner and the Manuscripts
Written by John Lawton
ir Alfred Chester Beatty’s great gift to the world of art came with a string attached – his name. Beatty, an American-born mining millionaire, was one of the first westerners to recognize the importance of Middle Eastern manuscripts as art. Over the course of half a century, he used his wealth and his familiarity with the Middle East to amass a collection of illuminated Islamic manuscripts rivaled in quality and scope only by the Topkapı collection itself. When he died in 1968, he bequeathed his collection to the Irish nation, which today maintains it as Beatty wished: in his name.
The manuscripts could have gone to the British Museum: Beatty settled in London in 1913 and became a naturalized British citizen in 1933. But he “sought immortality through his collection,” says an official of the Chester Beatty Library. “He didn’t leave it to the British Museum because they didn’t believe in a ‘Chester Beatty Room,’ ” insisting instead that Beatty’s collection be anonymously incorporated into their own.
Or, as many hoped, the collection could at least have remained in England – but Beatty quarreled with Britain’s postwar Labour government and moved to Ireland in 1950. As one of his biographers explains, Beatty “had a supreme contempt for every kind of socialist bureaucracy,” and was especially upset by the government’s refusal to let him transfer funds out of Britain to buy more manuscripts.
The Irish gave Beatty what the British refused him. They made him the first-ever honorary Irish citizen, gave him an unprecedented state funeral, and today perpetuate his name by maintaining the Chester Beatty Library with an annual grant from the prime minister’s office.
Which is why, incongruous as it seems, one of the world’s finest collections of Korans – produced in almost every century in countries from Spain to China – can be found today in a leafy backwater of Dublin, capital of one of the most Catholic of all countries.
“We are a bit out of the way,” admits librarian Pat Donlon, “but then, we don’t have problems with the pollution,” which threatens manuscripts in some big-city collections. The library does not have many visitors, either: only 8,000 to 9,000 people go there each year, say the custodians, and most of those are locals. “It’s one of the country’s greatest undeveloped assets,” complains David James, the library’s Islamic curator.
“It’s a great pity the library is not utilized more,” says James. The 2,000 volumes of medieval Arabic manuscripts which make up the bulk of the Chester Beatty collection “cover every conceivable subject,” he says, “and therefore are of outstanding importance for understanding the Arab and Islamic contribution to human history.”
It was in the bazaars of Cairo – where many of the manuscripts missing from imperial Islamic libraries reappeared for sale – that Chester Beatty purchased his first Koran, a seed that was to grow into the greatest collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts ever assembled by one man.
Beatty was born in 1875 in a New York neighborhood that is now the site of Rockefeller Center. Even as a small boy, he was an avid collector – and a person who knew what he wanted. He made his first major salesroom killing at the age of 10. “At one auction,” he recounted, “I fell in love with a beautiful [mineral] specimen of pink calcite. I was sitting in the front row [with my father] and bid 10 cents. The auctioneer was disgusted and all the men laughed, … [but] not a single one would bid against me.” The auctioneer finally had to knock down the prize specimen to young Beatty.
Beatty pursued his childhood interest in minerals at Columbia University’s School of Mines and graduated as a mining engineer. Spurning an allowance from his wealthy stockbroker father, he bought a one-way ticket west. In Colorado, Beatty began his career with the only job available: as a “mucker,” shoveling rock 10 hours a day for 25 cents an hour in Boulder’s Kekionga Gold Mine. Years later he was to give that name to his yacht.
In three years Beatty worked his way up from mucker to manager of the mine, and in another two to assistant general manager of the Guggenheim Exploration Company, helping acquire and develop many of the company’s richest mines.
By the age of 38, Beatty’s mining career had brought him a million dollars and a serious case of silicosis. He decided to leave mining – and the United States – and settle in England, homeland of his mother’s ancestors. He also bought a house in Cairo, from where he explored the Middle East and its treasures.
There, “literally in the market place,” says Donlon, Beatty found hundreds of beautiful illuminated Islamic manuscripts. “Nobody had recognized their importance at that stage,” says Donlon, “but Beatty had a great eye for color – probably due to his work with minerals.”
Beatty began buying in blocks – keeping for himself only the very best items from each lot and gaining a solid reputation for the quality and consistency of his collection. Beatty emphatically denied being a connoisseur. “I’m not a scholar,” he would insist, “just a mining engineer, with a wheezy lung to prove it.”
After World War I, Beatty embarked on the development of mining businesses throughout the world, including lead and zinc mines in Siberia, diamond mines in Sierra Leone and copper mines in Zambia. The extraordinary feature of Beatty’s work in these territories is that, as far as is known, he never actually visited any of them – sending out instead teams of geologists and mining engineers with very specific instructions where to explore. His judgment seldom proved wrong.
In search of new purchases for his library, however, Beatty did continue to travel extensively, exploring the book shops and salesrooms of Europe and dealing firsthand with sources in the Middle East. To confuse competitors, Beatty often sent coded telegrams to contacts, using mining terms – such as “three shafts” for “third century” – when discussing manuscripts.
During World War II, Beatty helped Britain obtain vital mineral supplies – a service for which he was later knighted – and converted his London home into a hospital for American officers.
But it was to Ireland, home of his father’s parents, that Beatty made his greatest gift: his collection, with his name attached. To some, the donation might seem self-seeking, but the gesture was not out of character. “Although much of his collection was purchased with the advice of the outstanding authorities of the time,” says a brief biography available at the library, “Beatty always had the last word.”
John Lawton is contributing editor of Aramco World magazine.
This article appeared on pages 38-40 of the March/April 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.