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Picasso is hiding in Iran

A reporter is granted access to a museum vault holding possibly the finest collection of late 19th and 20th century masters outside the West.

September 19, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Ihave spent the last week and a half winding a trail to Sadeghi's door, visiting and phoning artists, professors, collectors and dealers, in Tehran and around the world, to piece together the story of the international collection (which really is not secret at all, its highlights cataloged on the museum's website,

It had been a dream of Empress Farah, wife of the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who commissioned her cousin, the architect Kamran Diba, to design a new contemporary art museum for Tehran and fill it with notable works of contemporary Iranian art, and also international works that would allow the city to take its place among the leading centers of culture in the world.

"It wasn't a very long period for making such a collection. There was a bit of a rush. So he bought some masterpieces, some very beautiful pieces, and at the same time he bought some ordinary paintings, some not very important pieces," said Aydin Aghdashloo, a well-known Iranian painter who became the museum's first director.

Monet's "Environ de Giverny," Max Ernst's "Histoire Naturelle." Four of Andy Warhol's Mick Jaggers and a Mao Tse-tung. Georges Braque's "Guitar, Fruits et Pichet," and an Edvard Munch self-portrait. One of Edgar Degas' Dancers. Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, Duchamp, Dali. Photographs by Man Ray. Important Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

"In the end, if they were to display these paintings, then you wouldn't need to go any other place to see 20th century Western art, actually," Aghdashloo said. "Because you can find at least a tiny sample of every important artist in this collection."

The debut in 1977 was a hit.

"There was a tremendously warm, until almost the end, very positive response to the collection. Of course, we always balanced contemporary Iranian with contemporary Western art," said David Galloway, an American art expert, now based in Germany, who was the museum's first curator.

As the political turmoil in Iran mounted, though, and the revolution neared, there were signs that the collection was increasingly seen as a symbol of the West's support of the shah's regime.

"I did this sort of farewell exhibition, and it included a painting by Wesselmann, a 'Great American Nude,' you know, one of those ladies with large pink thingies," Galloway said.

"Then I left. And in the fall, a member of my staff saw a piece of paper sticking out of the painting, shoved up under the frame. He took it out, and it said, 'The next time, this will be a bomb.' "

In retrospect, he said, it was "a mistake" to display the painting -- that one and another, De Kooning's "Woman III," one of his violent, garish nudes.

As the streets filled increasingly with protesters, the museum staff elected to send the Western collection to the basement, intended then as a temporary shelter.

"It wasn't hidden. Well, in some way it was. But the main point was to keep them intact," Aghdashloo said. "At the beginning of the revolution, nobody knew what could happen. So they just dug the ground. It was like World War II and Dresden's collection. They put all the collection in caves. The same with the Louvre. This happens. You try to keep it safe. They did it. They kept it."

That has been the most widely misunderstood aspect of Iran's hidden art collection. Apart from a few politicians and clerics, who deplored it, its shelter in the basement vault by a generation of caretakers has largely been an exercise of love.

"It may be hard for people outside to know how deeply felt this was, how extraordinarily rich visually this culture was, and what a deep love it had for art in all its forms," Galloway said. "The love for beauty, for artistic expressions, ornamentation, design, color. I would say that in a funny kind of way, a collection that included Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein was nonetheless rooted in that culture."

There have been some calls in the parliament to sell off the Western collection -- what good was it doing anyone in the basement, after all. But by all accounts, only a single painting was disposed of: "Woman III," which was quietly traded in 1994 for the remainder of the exquisite 16th century Persian manuscript Tahmasbi Shahnameh, which includes a series of miniatures created by Safavid master painters and their students.

The De Kooning ended up in the private collection of Los Angeles entertainment magnate David Geffen, who last year sold it to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for about $137.5 million.

Few in Iran were sorry to see it go.

"It wasn't just that she was naked. It was showing a woman completely degraded," said Shahriar Adl, an art enthusiast who helped arrange the original swap. "It represents a naked woman as a personification of the devil, as horrible as possible."

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