Hidden art

One of the world’s great collections of modern art has been hiding since 1979 in the basement of a museum in Iran.

A treasure of 20th century art valued in the billions of dollars has been hidden for decades in the basement of a museum in Iran, reports Bloomberg.

The collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art boasts works by Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock and Giacometti, along with impressionists and postimpressionists such as Renoir and Gauguin. Notable pieces are Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground, valued five years ago by Christie’s at US$250 million; two Mark Rothkos valued at US$200 million and $100 million; and Paul Gauguin’s Still Life with Japanese Woodcut, valued at US$45 million.

An exhibition held this fall was the first major show of the collection of 1,500 Western art works, which was shut away in a basement vault in 1979, after the start of the Iranian revolution led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini denounced Iran’s “Westoxification” — the idea that Muslim nations had been infected with Western-generated moral decay and sexual depravity, which could be cured only through a strict adherence to Islamic rule enforced by Islamic clerics.

The art collection had been slowly assembled in the 1970s by Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose regime was overturned by the Islamic revolution. Following the 1973 oil crisis, art prices were depressed and the empress, who had studied art in Paris and preferred European works, hired buyers to secretly purchase the works.

For more than 30 years, the collection was guarded by Firouz Shabazi Moghadam, who was originally hired by the museum in 1977 as a workman. Shabazi had only a high school education and learned about the paintings by reading books on art. Slowly, his love for the works grew and he came to see himself as the collection’s protector, shielding it from abuse by revolutionaries. “Only God knows where I got this courage from — I who am normally so afraid,” Shabazi told Bloomberg. “With this vault, with this museum, I am like a lion.”