Fears for Iran’s modern art collection

It has been reported in yesterday’s Sunday Times, that there are fears for Iran’s much-loved £2 billion modern art collection; which, thus far, has survived Iran’s revolution and numerous sanctions from the UN.

The collection (1,500 works altogether) was amassed by the former Empress of Iran, and hidden in a vault after she fled the 1979 revolution. The collection including a triptych by Francis Bacon, silk-screen prints by Andy Warhol and Indian Red Ground by Jackson Pollock. As the art world has not seen any of these works for the last 40 years, there is much excitement about their impending tour.

However, the breaking-up and loaning of the collection has come under scrutiny by protesters, who demonstrated in the street this week, as a leaked document implied that authorities of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (pictured – which houses the collection) were planning privatization, putting these precious works in jeopardy.

As Iran has toned down it’s nuclear programme a little, there has been a lifting of economic sanctions, meaning the works can now be loaned to museums around the world, which the Empress welcomes. First on the list is Berlin, where this autumn, the State Museum will host an exhibition of 60 art works from the collection – 30 western and 30 Iranian; with a show planned in Washington for next year to include Picasso, Warhol and Rothko.

The exiled empress, Farah Pahlavi, told Vanity Fair she called up the museum anonymously after her exile, as she was “very worried about the works,” she continued, “I said: listen, this is a cultural heritage and wealth for our country. It’s also material wealth. It is for our people, don’t exchange anything.”

The demonstrations have come about as the organization it is suggested the museum will hand over legal authority group, the Roudaki Foundation (a private organization that runs a symphony orchestra in Tehran,) “cannot take care of the museum”, as protesters do not believe the group has either the expertise nor finances.

Protesters are also aware of the remarkable story of Firouz Shabazi Mogdhadam, who was once a driver but is currently the curator of the exhibition – but there are fears with privatization, he will be sidelined. Mogdhadam was working at the museum when revolution broke out, and after his senior colleagues fled the danger, he decided to stay behind to protect the collection. Mogdhadam protected the works from fellow revolutionaries on numerous occasions who were targeting symbols of Western Culture. Mogdaham said, “Only God knows where I got this courage from. With this vault, with this museum, I am like a lion.”

Over the past few decades the museum has turned down numerous respectable offers to buy the works, including an £80 milllion offer for a Francis Bacon from the Monaco Foundation. In that time, the museum has only let go of one work of art: a William de Kooning, which was exchanged for a precious 400 year old Islamic folio.

Scholar, Shiva Balagi said, “That this collection has remained intact throughout political shifts in Iran is testament to the power of art and the centrality of culture to the Iranians.”