Iran’s Hidden Art Collection

The inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 1977 would soon prove to be an untimely event. Less than a year later, the Iranian Revolution erupted on 7 January 1978, resulting the following spring in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the present Islamic Republic.

The plan to found a modern art museum in the Iranian capital was the brainchild of the last Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. Her enthusiasm for the subject had been fostered while studying art in Paris, and was boosted by subsequent meetings with artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore and Salvador Dalí. In the mid-1970s, the Empress brought together a team of international curators and released government funds to purchase works for the new museum, taking advantage of a current dip in the value of the art market. Alongside examples of modern and contemporary Iranian art by celebrated artists such as Behjat Sadr, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Ghassem Hajizadeh and members of the Saqqa-khaneh School, the team amassed over 150 works of Western modernism. This collection, including pieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Dalí, is now considered to be one of the finest of its kind outside Europe and North America. The works initially took pride of place in the museum’s new state-of-the-art building, blending traditional Persian architecture with a swirling staircase reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the conservative government of new leader Ayatollah Khomeini, known for his hatred of Western influences, had other ideas. Not long after the revolution, the museum’s collection of European and American art was put into storage, remaining in the vault of the Tehran museum for the next two decades.

For some time, there were fears for the future of the collection. In addition to the new regime’s efforts to combat ‘Westoxification’, the sexual overtones of works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse and Francis Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, were deemed to be unsuitable for display in the Islamic Republic. However, the collection’s ever-increasing price tag – today estimated to be over 3 billion US dollars and no doubt accelerated by its tempestuous provenance and rarity of display – made the works too valuable to be destroyed. The museum’s painting Mural on Indian Red Ground by Jackson Pollock, one of the American abstractionist’s largest paintings, is alone valued at over $250 million. As a result, the collection remains largely intact. Only two works are known to have been lost – a Warhol portrait of Empress Farah that was slashed in the aftermath of the revolution, and Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which was deaccesioned in 1994. Considered to be particularly offensive for its representation of female nudity, the painting was traded to a US collector for a beautifully decorated 16th-century Persian manuscript. Afterwards, de Kooning’s portrait entered the private collection of US entertainment magnate David Geffen and was recently sold on to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen for 137.5 million US dollars, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Since the 1990s, individual works from the collection have been loaned to international museums. However, the first post-revolutionary exhibition of Western art would not be held at TMoCA itself until 1999, when Pop Art works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg were put on display. A larger exhibition opened in 2005, on the eve of the election of President Ahmadinejad, causing crowds to flock to Tehran. More recently, TMoCA has reinvigorated its public programme, and in 2015 many Western art critics travelled to Tehran for the first time to see works from the permanent collection displayed alongside a retrospective of the recently deceased Iranian abstract painter, Farideh Lashai.

 The gradual thawing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West has also seen the Iranian government dusting off the paintings and sculptures, with plans to send part of the collection overseas on a cultural diplomacy mission. However, the first of these exhibitions, planned to open at the Berlin National Gallery at the end of 2016, was sadly cancelled within the last few days, reportedly due to the Iranian president’s last-minute refusal to sign export permits. A larger exhibition, planned to open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC later in 2017, now also looks to be in jeopardy, with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of the incoming administration unlikely to soothe President Rouhani’s jitters. In the meantime, most Western art lovers will have to be satisfied with reports on the collection from journalists who have been lucky enough to enter the TMoCA’s vaults (‘Picasso is Hiding in Iran‘, Los Angeles Times, 2007; ‘Iran Has Been Hiding One of the World’s Great Collections of Modern Art‘, Bloomberg, 2015).

Images: Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground, 1950. TMoCA; Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953. Private collection of Steven A. Cohen; Francis Bacon, middle panel of triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, 1968. TMoCA.

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