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Tehran Museum Talk
Iranian Travellers Tales, Timeless Travels, Spring 2016


It had been five years in the planning, this fortnight-long tour of Iran. But it had been worth the wait, in order to be escorted around this fascinating country by Sylvie Franquet, a friend who knew it well and loved it passionately. We were also travelling out of season, in November, in order to fit between the school half term holidays and the Christmas season. The group had been recruited through different strands of friendship, which made us an unusually vocal, enthusiastic but disobedient group. It was also talented, for our party of a dozen travellers included five writers, four publishers, three gallerists, two artists and just one listener. There was a designated quiet seat at the back of the coach, but it was seldom occupied, for the chatter was simply too interesting to miss out on, and often inescapable, as stories and histories were excitably shared on the microphone. One of our most memorable treats was when William Dalrymple explained the plot of his next book, off the cuff without notes and without a line yet written down. We had thrice daily flourishes of poetry from our guide, to amplify the landscape with sonnets from Hafiz. The gallerists in our party were more professionally reserved by nature, but fortunately not silent, so over the fortnight of travelling together we heard fascinating flickers of contemporary art-history. How the Empress Farah had commissioned her own cousin, the architect Kamran Diba to create a brutalist art-bunker for Tehran, which was intended as a rival to Manhattan’s Guggenheim.

We were told how the art collection had been started with great secrecy and stealth, but then rapidly snowballed. For Farah, like the Empress Catherine the Great before, moved from buying single masterpieces to securing whole collections, in the dizzy years between the oil price boom of 1974 and the revolution of 1979. But unlike the celebrated images of priceless bottles of claret being poured down the drain, televised to the world during the Revolution, her collection of modern art managed to survive. It was moth-balled as just another instance of western decadence imported by the Shah’s regime, a piece of ‘West-Toxification’. But the collection was never damaged, protected by diligent custodians who used an immaculately itemised register, including all the original prices paid, in their armoury of bureaucratic defences. No one doubted that the Empress had ended up paying top dollar at the auction houses in the late 70’s, but her collection of Jackson Pollocks’s, Francis Bacon’s, Kandinsky’s, Rothko’s and sculptures by Moore, Giacometti and Magritte had been bought with a keen and discerning eye. They have done very, very well as an investment.

Unseen for the first twenty years after the Revolution, a tiny fraction of the collection was put up on show in 1999, then taken down again, then opened again. At times this had elements of a French farce, such as when Francis Bacon’s butcher-like analysis of male nudes was the star canvas at an official opening ceremony, but had been sent back to the basement before the end of the evening. Indeed the museum of modern art could be watched like a political barometer that chronicled the seesaw of Iranian political life, as conservatives and reformers took over the driving seat, and revealed their different attitudes through the exhibition of western art. The doors are now wide open, and there are even talks of loan agreements to allow for foreign exhibitions, but whatever their political hue, the various governments of Iran have been impressively united around one principle. The collection of modern art is the property of the nation and is not for sale.

But for every rule there has to be an exception, especially if it involves London-based Oliver Hoare, the James Bond of Islamic Art dealers. Mr Hoare is a man of legendary charm, energy and enthusiasm who knows both collecting Sultans and diffident art scholars, intellectual Princesses and a heady cocktail of international art dealers. So, after three years of tentative talks and secret negotiations, a modest van driven by Oliver Hoare backs up against the private jet of the President of Iran on the tarmac of Vienna airport. Two packages are exchanged. One is immediately sent west into neutral Switzerland, out of reach of any interfering US government agents. The other was flown straight back to Tehran. It is like a scene lifted straight out of the film The Third Man, but for real for William de Kooning’s Woman III had been swopped for the Houghton Shahnameh, both nominally valued at 13 million dollars, though a nought could, and soon would be added to the price-tag of one of these works.

But Iran had done well. The Tehran museum of modern art had exchanged an unshowable female nude from its basement in order to reclaim a central piece of its literary and artistic history. For the so-called Houghton Shahnameh had been commissioned by Shah Ismail himself as a gift to his son and eventual heir, Shah Tamasp. It took the artists of the Safavid court twenty years to create the 258 painted illuminations with which this edition of the Shahnameh was originally ornamented. To those unfamiliar with Ferdowsi’s Shahmaneh, it is nothing less than the Iranian Iliad and Odyssey. Or to put it into a British perspective, it is as if Holbein had been employed by King Henry VIII to illustrate Shakespeare’s first folio. The only sadness in this tale, is that one of the members of the Houghton family who had owned this treasure for some forty years, had broken the book up and sold off half the illuminations (albeit largely to New Yorks’ Metropolitan Museum). The Shahnameh had passed into the hands of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II and then somewhat mysteriously passed from out of the Topkapi palace collection into the hands of Baron Edmund de Rothschild at the turn of the century. But none of these owners had damaged so much as a page over the previous 400 years.

On a positive note the entire text has survived and is now back in its homeland with around half of its original illuminations. And but for this one glaring exception, the Houghton’s have generally managed their wealth (derived from their vast Corning glass works) to good ends, endowing the Houghton library at Harvard and they also number Katherine ‘Houghton’ Hepburn amongst their clan.

Our interest in the museums of Tehran was more than a little picqued by these insider stories. But as luck was to have it, we were to be offered up an even greater treat. For our hostess and guide, the Flemish artist and orientalist, Sylvie Franquet, had just heard that the Islamic Era galleries of the National Museum of Iran, which had been mysteriously closed for decades, had just been opened a few weeks before our arrival. They had been opened without fanfare and without an international press corps in attendance. There is as yet no shop and no café, just an exhibition space for conferences and temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. But upstairs, we found the most magnificent collection of Islamic art in the world, beautifully arranged over two floors and modestly annotated with scholarly notes and maps. We were alone apart from the curators, who seemed delighted at our enthusiasm.

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