Iran's secret billion-dollar art collection

·7 min read
The Tehran Museum Of Contemporary Art  - Alamy
The Tehran Museum Of Contemporary Art - Alamy

People ask me, ‘What do you think of when you think of Iran?’” says Farah Pahlavi, the 82-year-old widow of the country’s last Shah, speaking to me via Zoom from her wood-panelled Parisian home. “I think of the mountains. Especially Damavand, the volcano, which I could see from the palace. And I think of the streams, the trees, ordinary people…” She sighs. “Of course, I miss my country, the country that I knew. But I keep hope that Iran will rise from her ashes.”

It’s more than four decades since she fled Tehran with Iran’s “King of Kings”, Mohammad Reza, amid the turmoil of the revolution, in January 1979. Today she finds it “difficult”, she says, to look back at her glittering life as Shahbanu (empress), when, as a dynamic, stylish young woman with her own private plane, she was feted as the “Jackie Kennedy of the Middle East”.

“The whole problem of fundamentalism started really from our country,” she tells me.

Yet, she happily recalls one aspect of that period: her patronage of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which boasts the finest collection of Western modern art outside Europe and North America. Brimming with masterpieces by the likes of Bacon, Giacometti, Picasso, Pollock, and Rothko, all acquired for less than $100 million, it is today worth an estimated $3 billion (£2.2 billion). And the astonishing story behind it, which has intrigued me for years, is the subject of my new Radio 4 documentary, Iran’s Secret Art Collection, to be broadcast next Tues [SUBS: April 6].

Pahlavi, nee Diba, was studying architecture in Paris when she met her future husband at a reception at the Iranian embassy in 1959. They married that December, when she was 21 years old. As the Shah’s third wife (he was already twice divorced), her principal duty was to provide an heir. The following year, she gave birth to the crown prince. This allowed her to become a political operator in her own right, culminating in her coronation as modern Iran’s first Shahbanu in 1967.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, with his third wife Farah and their son Reza in circa 1975  - Universal Images Group
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, with his third wife Farah and their son Reza in circa 1975 - Universal Images Group

According to Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, associate curator of the V&A’s forthcoming Epic Iran exhibition, a “certain romanticism” still surrounds the former empress, despite accusations of corruption and human rights abuses against the monarchy, which benefited from the oil crisis of the Seventies: by 1975, Iran’s nationalised refining industry was raking in almost $20 billion a year. This is because, Sarikhani Sandmann explains, “Farah knew she could empower change in areas like education, healthcare, and culture.”

The idea for TMoCA was planted at a private view in the late Sixties, when a female artist, Iran Darroudi, told the empress: “I wish we had a place like a museum to show our works.” Her Imperial Majesty agreed.

To design the new museum, she appointed a cousin, the architect Kamran Diba. In a park in central Tehran, he created an extraordinary Brutalist building, with copper-clad skylights inspired by the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Inside, a ramp spirals down to the galleries, like a subterranean version of the Guggenheim in New York. “It was a beautiful building,” Pahlavi recalls. But what should go inside?

At the time, thanks to the Shah’s “white revolution” of reforms, Iranian society was changing rapidly. Eager to demonstrate that Iran was, as she puts it, “modernising” and “open to the rest of the world”, she decided to foster a “dialogue of civilisations”, by acquiring an exemplary collection of Western modern art, beginning with Impressionism.

In 1975, her office employed a young American curator, Donna Stein, to propose acquisitions. In a new memoir, The Empress and I, Stein describes two tumultuous years at her secretariat. “Her concept occurred long before globalisation and any notions of cultural dialogue,” Stein writes. One important purchase signalled the museum’s cross-cultural philosophy: Gauguin’s Still Life with Japanese Print (1889), which demonstrated the Frenchman’s interest in “ukiyo-e” woodcuts.

As TMoCA’s masterpieces were snapped up, the empress met several artists – including Henry Moore, a fellow guest at a state dinner at Downing Street in 1976. She subsequently visited Hoglands, the artist’s rural home and studio in the Hertfordshire hamlet of Perry Green. Eventually, Iran acquired several bronzes by Moore, including two monumental reclining figures that are still in TMoCA's garden. At some point, one was nicked by a stray bullet, probably fired during the revolution.

Henry Moore's Oval with Points - B O'Kane/Alamy
Henry Moore's Oval with Points - B O'Kane/Alamy

The museum owns other sculptures including a giant Alexander Calder mobile, The Orange Fish (1946), which floats above the atrium. There’s also a bronze by Magritte, whom the empress says she especially “liked”, adding: “I admired Picasso a lot, too.” TMoCA has several Picassos, but the standout is The Painter and His Model (1927), once owned by the Spaniard’s biographer Christian Zervos. “His Majesty liked the Impressionists more – but he was so busy that he left all this to me.”

The museum’s grand opening took place on the eve of the empress’s 39th birthday in 1977 – decades before other glitzy new museums, paid for with petrodollars, started appearing in neighbouring Gulf States. Among the VIPs was Nelson Rockefeller, a former American vice president, who once owned a Van Gogh lithograph that ended up at TMoCA. When, though, the revolution erupted, the entire Western collection – including Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950), the jewel in its crown, once valued by Christie’s at $250m – was taken down for safekeeping and stored in a basement vault. For decades, the art languished out of sight, like treasure buried in a tomb.

Of course, it’s no surprise that the mullahs didn’t want Iran’s public to encounter modern art. Some of TMoCA’s works – such as a portrait by Renoir of a bare-breasted model which, according to Stein, once hung above a narrow bed in the Shah’s private quarters – could never be shown in the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the central canvas of a grand triptych by Francis Bacon from 1968 depicts two naked men spooning on a bed. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. When the triptych finally emerged from TMoCA’s basement, censors swiftly removed the middle panel. “But,” Sarikhani Sandmann points out, “they left the other two.” People in Iran, she says, “live with contradictions”.

At first, the exiled empress feared that the republic’s religious leaders, railing against “Westoxification”, would sell off the collection – or, worse, destroy it. (“I didn’t take anything with me,” she points out.) One day, while watching French TV, she discovered that, during the revolution, a silkscreen portrait of her by Andy Warhol had been slashed and burned. Yet, aside from this, and a painting by Willem de Kooning – which, in an episode worthy of a thriller, was swapped during the Nineties on the tarmac at Vienna’s international airport for a rare Persian manuscript – the collection has survived intat. It’s unclear how many Western artworks, if any, are currently on display at the museum, but every now and then, TMoCA does lend a work to the West – including that Bacon.

Farah Pahlavi, former Empress of Iran, photographed in Paris in 2018 - Magali Delporte
Farah Pahlavi, former Empress of Iran, photographed in Paris in 2018 - Magali Delporte

So, why haven’t the ayatollahs got rid of TMoCA’s treasures? During the Eighties, the empress tells me, they were distracted by war with Iraq. Moreover, she once told Stein, “even if some Iranians don’t like modern art, they know it’s valuable.”

For Sarikhani Sandmann, there is another reason, too: Iran is not, she explains, an “iconoclastic” culture. During the revolution, a human shield reportedly formed around TMoCA to protect the art inside. More recently, when plans to privatise the collection emerged, there were protests. Now, I’m told, the museum has reopened, following renovation.

Today, Her Majesty finds comfort in the fact that TMoCA’s collection still touches people’s lives. “I once received an email from a young Iranian artist, a lady,” she tells me, “who said, ‘When I found myself in front of a Rothko, I had tears in my eyes.’” In her pre-revolution memoirs, which will be published in English for the first time later this year, she wrote: “I believe in my heart that the seeds you sow with love and hope never die.” Is TMoCA one of those seeds? “Yes,” she replies softly, with a smile. “It’s a very beautiful seed.”

Iran’s Secret Art Collection is on Radio 4 at 11.30am on April 6 and will be available on BBC Sounds after that

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