TEHRAN — Habibollah Sadeghi looks vaguely irritated to see me: not surprised, seeing as he has spent the last 10 days evading my phone calls, letters and polite appeals delivered through intermediaries. He knows I want to see his Picassos. He doesn't want to show them to me.
But Iranian hospitality being what it is, Sadeghi is forced to invite me into his office for tea. "I got your letter," he says. "Frankly, I was somewhat offended that you seem to think our paintings are like some big nuclear secret. They are not a secret at all."
"I know," I reply. "That's why I came to see them."
We are not talking about the paintings on the wall at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which Sadeghi directs. Those are, at the moment, a stylish if bland collection of Iranian textile and costume design for the fashion-conscious and appropriately modest Iranian woman.
No, we're talking about the outlaw paintings in the basement, locked in the museum's vault. Not just the Picassos -- the Kandinskys, the Miros, the Warhols. The Monet, the Pissarro, the Toulouse-Lautrec, the Van Gogh. Possibly the best Jackson Pollock outside the U.S.
Ruled by one of the most vehemently anti-Western governments in the world, Iran is, by many assessments, home to the most extensive collection of late 19th and 20th century Western art outside the West. It is a treasure trove of masters that is all but forgotten outside knowledgeable art circles because, for all but a few of the last 30 years, it has been virtually unseen.
Assembled during the waning years of the shah's regime, when the oil boom of the 1970s rendered the country flush with cash, the collection debuted two years before the Islamic Revolution. Except for occasional international loans, a pair of small-scale shows and a daring exhibition two years ago during the administration of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, it disappeared from view thereafter.
"You will see works of Asian and Oriental civilizations in the Western museums, such as the Metropolitan, the British, the Louvre, the Hermitage. But you never find great antiquities and objects and artworks from Western civilization in Eastern countries' museums," said Ali-Reza Samiazar, Sadeghi's predecessor as director of the museum. "There's one exception to this, and one only: this collection."
Samiazar managed to open an exhibition of the highlights of the collection for five months in 2005 -- an act of artistic suicide committed just as the election of one of the most militantly anti-Western presidents in Iran's recent history, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was putting an end to his tenure at the museum and consigning the paintings once more to the basement.
"You can't find any collection of this comprehension outside the Western world," said Samiazar, who now teaches at a Tehran art institute. "In Tokyo, you may find important works by Impressionist artists. But in terms of a comprehensive collection covering all the major movements, no. Nowhere. Not in the East European countries, not in Scandinavia, not in South America or Asia. Not anywhere. It's one of the most important cultural assets of this country."
Which has brought me to Sadeghi's office, and my exercise in dignified begging. The collection once was freely open to visiting scholars and journalists, I point out, but these permissions have become harder to come by under the new president.
He wants to know why I'm so keen to see them. He lectures me about those who imply Iran hasn't a right to these paintings, who raise unfounded charges that Iran isn't caring for them properly. He describes the strict regime of humidity and temperature control under which they are kept.
He says the main reason the collection can't be displayed now is not that it is politically incorrect. The bigger reason, he says, is that there simply is no room for both the museum's robust program of temporary exhibitions and its large permanent holdings.
Sadeghi says there are plans afoot to build a major national gallery in Tehran to put the paintings on permanent display, along with the museum's extensive collection of Iranian contemporary art, and acquire new works -- a Cezanne, perhaps -- to fill in the holes in the Tehran collection.
"The way you approached me in your letter suggested that we do not appreciate this collection. On the contrary. I myself am an artist and sculptor; I have a PhD in art research. I have participated in 44 international exhibitions. My wife is an artist. My daughter is an artist. Do you imagine we would not safeguard this collection?
"This collection is near to our soul. It is a precious thing for us, we keep it like the apple of our eye. But we also believe the collection of the vault belongs to the whole of humanity."
"All the more reason to see it," I say.
"You will see it," he says.