Iran Has Been Hiding One of the World's Great Collections of Modern Art

  • 2015-11-18
  • Bloomberg

Inside the rotunda of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, a circular walkway spirals down from the street level, like an underground version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. A series of galleries branches out from there, giving up astonishing secrets from one of the finest—if forgotten—collections of 20th century art in the world. A show this fall included abstract expressionist paintings by Kandinsky, Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko, and Stella, to name just a few from the museum’s vault. Sculptures by Ernst, Giacometti, Magritte, and Moore are on permanent display in the garden. The corkscrew-shaped foyer wraps around a giant Calder mobile—its playful red shapes glinting in midair beneath the stern glares of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei in portraits above.

On a crisp day in late October, the museum is an island of calm in downtown Tehran, a metropolis of 16 million people choked by traffic, smog, and rampant construction. The galleries are a ghost town, except for a dozen photography students who, for the $1.50 price of admission, have Jackson Pollock’s 1950 masterpiece Mural on Indian Red Ground all to themselves. The 9-foot-by-8-foot scarlet canvas, splattered with white, gray, and black streaks, one of Pollock’s largest paintings in his drip style, is regarded by many as his best. It was valued by Christie’s at $250 million five years ago. Down the ramp, the students arrive at a pair of wall-size Mark Rothkos, each valued at $100 million to $200 million. Their professor bids them to ponder a quote from the painter printed nearby: “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.”

As Iran lurches toward reengaging with the world after the end of years of sanctions, a crown jewel waits in history’s shadow. Built by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi, just before the 1979 revolution, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art amassed the greatest collection of modern Western masterpieces outside Europe and North America—and dropped off the map. Now it’s reemerging. The museum is following up its big abstract expressionism show with a mixed exhibition of Iranian and Western art opening Nov. 20. In October it signed a tentative agreement with the German government to send 60 artworks from Tehran—30 Western and 30 Iranian—to Berlin for a three-month show next fall, which would mark the museum’s first exhibition overseas. A larger show could follow in 2017 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington if political and legal circumstances allow, says the Hirshhorn’s director, Melissa Chiu. “This is one of the great unseen collections of postwar European and American art in the world,” she says. “We haven’t seen these works in 40 years.”