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What Secrets Does Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Hold?

  • Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
November 18, 2015
Anika Dačić graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade and is currently pursuing MA in Literary and Cultural Studies. Her interests lie in social and cultural aspects of contemporary art production and she especially enjoys writing about street and urban art. Likes to knit, play adventure video games and host quiz nights at a local bar.

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, one of the largest and most valuable collections of modern Western art has been locked in a storage, condemned to live in the darkness of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art vault. The collection of 1500 works by basically any significant artist from 1980’s to 1970’s became a myth over the last four decades, as nobody was able to see the masterpieces in years after the revolution. However, things are about to change and some of these works will finally see the light of day. It was recently announced that sixty pieces from the collection will travel to Berlin next fall and for three months European public will be able to enjoy some of the most important modern art pieces.

Tehran Museum iran park data, exhibition, home, new, policy, privacy, culture
Jackson Pollock – Mural on Indian Red Ground, 1950, detail. Courtesy of WikiArt

The Sad History of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1977 and it served as a host of some of the most precious works of Western modern art acquired by the Pahlavi family. At the time of global art market depression, the Iranian emperors obtained a significant line of artworks. The love for Western art supported the late Shah’s regime aims and its liberalistic orientation, which resulted in the forming of the largest collection of Western art outside of Europe and the United States. The fame of the art collection valued at approximately $3 billion was short lived. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise and the change of the regime in Iran decided the fate of the museum and the works. The Islamic fight against “westoxification” deemed the collection as sacrilegious and two years after the museum opening the works were hidden from the public, disappearing into the basement.

Tehran Museum iran park data, exhibition, home, new, policy, privacy, culture
Left: Andy Warhol – Suicide (Purple Jumping Man), 1963 / Right: Max Ernst – Capricorn, 1948

What is Hidden in the Museum Vault?

Fortunately, after the change of the regime the collection remained unharmed to the general surprise. Except one of de Kooning’s nudes which was exchanged back in 1994 for the Shahnama, a 400-year-old book of miniatures, the rest of the collection remained intact. As mentioned before, the collection comprises 1500 works from the late 19th and early 20th century from Claude Monet, Picasso, René Magritte to Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol among many other prominent names. Some of the crowned jewels of the collection are Jackson Pollock’s painting Mural on Indian Red Ground, one of his largest and most praised works, along with the pair of Mark Rothko’s wall-size paintings, each valued between $100 million to $200 million and Paul Gauguin’s Still Life With Japanese Woodcut, a piece that Japanese collectors were so eager to obtain, that they even offered a blank check for it. The exquisite collection is often one of the reasons why some art connoisseurs proclaimed the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art a modern-art gold mine.

Tehran Museum iran park data iran, exhibition, home, new, policy, privacy, culture
Left: Mark Rothko, Sienna, Orange and Black on Dark Brown, 1962 / Right: Mark Rothko, No. 2 (Yellow Center), 1954

Tehran Collection on View Overseas

After the death of Khomeini, some of the artworks from the collection were displayed in pop-up shows over the years at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum directors and curators were also careful not to display any works that featured nudity and homosexual connotations. It is one of the reasons why in 2005 Bacon’s triptych, Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendants was taken down quickly after the show’s opening. In the last three years, however, the trend slightly changed due to the liberal shifts in the Iranian political climate. Tehran Museum saw the increasing number of Western art exhibitions, and there are plans to put the pieces on display outside of Iran, establishing collaborations between Iranian cultural institutions and those abroad. It is recently confirmed that sixty works from the collection, along with works by the Iranian artists, will travel to Berlin in fall 2016. It is the first time any artwork from the museum will be exhibited outside of Iran, but it still isn’t announced which pieces will be on loan.

The interest in Tehran Museum collection is strong now, as it was in the past decades when many influential institutions were trying to negotiate loans and to obtain artworks from the hidden collection. The Berlin exhibition triggered the line of speculations whether the works from the collection will travel to the US next, but nothing is yet confirmed. In the end, I think we can agree that the emergence of these artworks from the cellar is an extraordinary thing, which will finally reestablish the path of the museum hindered by the revolution.

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Featured image: Andy Warhol – Mao Zedong series of portraits in the museum vault. Photo via