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Reunited after almost 60 years

Since the inscription of our Desmet Collection on Unesco's Memory of the World Register in 2011 (actually already in the stages of preparing the application) I have been trying to explain why it is difficult to provide an exact number of the films. Although the collection seems to be a finite entity, it also keeps growing (923 and counting). It's hard to tell how many films would make the collection 'complete': it is difficult to establish which films exactly had been distributed by Jean Desmet and thus which ones we are still missing.

By Elif Rongen06 January 2016

From the company papers, it appears that he considered many items, not necessarily acquiring them all in the end. The fact that the poster and the film holdings only barely overlap, is also curious. Even when we do know for sure that he distributed some titles (based on the company papers), not all film prints were among the collection when it arrived to our archive in 1957.


Desmet himself had sold parts of his collection, and sometimes these film prints (still bearing the original Desmet company intertitles cards) find their way to our institute through private collectors. This was the case with Tragico Convegno, the 1915 film by Ivo Illuminati that we preserved a couple of years ago. Similarly, over the years, we have received and preserved more films from Desmet's distribution list; such as Loyalty of Sylvia (1912/USA, arrived to us via the Royal Information Services!), or Das Geheimschloss (1914/Germany, found in the year 2000 among thousands of nitrate cans that were privately kept inside the historic city of Haarlem for decades). In such cases, only after examining the print and identifying the contents, we can conclude that we are dealing with a film from the Desmet Collection.

But what happened beginning of December 2015 was unprecedented: a few reels of nitrate (bought in a French flea market) were brought to our archive. One of the reels was still in an original Desmet company film can! It is of course very often that film cans get recycled so having the can does not necessarily mean that its content will also be related to the Desmet Collection. And yet, it was: the can contained the 1909 film Nerone by Luigi Maggi, of which Eye so far only held 12 original stills, received from the Desmet family sixty years ago!

The film can of Nerone by Luigi Maggi
The film can of Nerone by Luigi Maggi

So 106 years after its release in the Netherlands, and many decades after being separated from the rest of the Desmet Collection, the film (and the can) are now reunited in our vaults.
What is going to happen now? First of all, we will be putting the film reel in a new archival film can, so that it can take its permanent place in our vaults. The historic can will go to the film-related collections. The film is not a unique print; several film archives around the world report to have a copy. This means that we will start a research round asking and comparing details, before we can take further action. As part of the Desmet Collection, to have this film preserved is among our prioritites, but it is even more important to do this with all things considered. After all, our print (after so many years of wandering around) may not be complete, or may not be in the greatest condition, and it certainly does not have the original Italian intertitles... So before proceeding, we will dive into international research in order to establish the universal value of what we have.

Film strip of Nerone, with Nero and Octavia
Film strip of Nerone, with Nero and Octavia

The significance of the Desmet film can, and particularly the fact that we can still receive such an item after so many years, remains very big; it keeps our hope alive that we can go on finding lost silent films from more than a century ago.

A Desmet film can from our collection
A Desmet film can from our collection
The film reel of Nerone
The film reel of Nerone