Although few people know it, Tehran is home to the most impressive collection of modern art outside the US and Europe.  Inaugurated in 1977 by Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art houses important works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol among many others. Its collection is said to be worth over $3 billion.

Yet while the museum has the means to guide visitors though the history of modern western art from impressionism to pop, it has, with a few exceptions, kept most of its contents consigned to vaults since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The museum’s very existence sits uneasily with the reigning ideology of the Islamic Republic. From a conservative Islamist perspective, to display the collection freely would be to accept a small piece of the legacy of the deposed Pahlavi monarchy. Within the post-revolutionary mind-set, it would also signify acceptance of gharbzadegi, or “westoxification” – that is, admiration and servility in the face of western influence.

Although such conservative attitudes have shown signs of waning from time to time, the museum’s recent plans to send major works to exhibitions in Berlin and Rome collapsed late last year, supposedly because of fears that the collection could be subject to legal claims.


An American Curator in Tehran

One person who would have liked to see the art in Germany is Donna Stein, the American art historian and museum specialist who curated the collection for the queen’s office in the late 1970s.

“When I was traveling in December and January, I was still hopeful,” Stein says of the planned exhibition at Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie. “It’s unfortunate. On the other hand, they realize the value of it.”

From 1966 to 1972, Stein was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of her duties was to train younger staff, as well as people from outside the museum, on how to handle and manage museum pieces. One of her trainees was a young Iranian woman, Fereshteh Daftari, who worked for the office of Farah Pahlavi. The two women became friends, and Daftari worked at MOMA for around six months.

In 1972, Stein received a travel grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study the art and architecture of world’s fairs and their impact. Starting in New York, she travelled the world visiting World’s Fair sites in St. Louis, San Francisco, Osaka, Rome, Paris, Brussels and London. Along the way, she stopped in Iran for a month. She also visited Daftari, who introduced her to members of Farah’s family.

Stein travelled Iran’s tourist route, making stops in Shiraz and Isfahan. “I was enchanted by the architecture, but I was also led to understand that everything was not rosy in terms of the political environment.” She remembers seeing a large parade on television and being told by an acquaintance that the crowds were part of a forced political spectacle. “That statement immediately made me realize the differences between what I knew in the US and where I was. I saw that things were two-edged.”

But in 1974, Stein received a letter from Daftari, writing on behalf of the queen’s office. Daftari asked if she was interested in working with her to set up what were to become the western collections of a new museum of modern art.

“It was a job I couldn't refuse,” Stein says, “but I couldn't just say yes. I wanted to go and interview in a proper way to see who I would work with and what the situation would be.”

Stein was teaching at the time, but travelled to Iran on her Christmas holidays, where she spent two weeks and met the principal people in the queen's office. She was asked how she would go about organizing an international collection of western art, created a formal report detailing an acquisition program, and was hired.


In Search of a Collection

Although her contract didn’t start until the following February, Stein and Daftari got started right away at a large Tehran art fair organized by the Galerie Maeght in Paris.

“We went through the fair and identified works that could be purchased,” she says. “A number of works acquired at that time became part of the collection, including Wassily Kandinsky’s Tensions Claires, Alberto Giacometti’s Portrait of Yanaihara and bronze sculpture, La Cage, Georges Braque’s bronze, Hymen, and a few other items.”

Back in New York, Stein began the job officially. Initially tasked with acquiring works on paper—prints, drawings, photographs and posters—she ended up looking for works in all media. With the help of MOMA's director of painting and sculpture, William Lieberman, and others, she began to identify dealers and experts who could help form the collection.

“I was charged with organizing a collection that began with impressionism,” Stein says. “There was a strong mandate to create an educational experience for the people of Iran by giving them an overview of the history of art since impressionism. It was a way for them to learn what was possible.”

Stein set about identifying important artworks held by reputable dealers who would be willing to set items aside without a final say for several months. “I looked at private collections and dealers in California, London, Tokyo and other places,” Stein says. “Feri Daftari, along with Karim Pasha Bahadori, who was the head of the queen’s office, and Ambassador Mehdi Vakil, came for ten days and looked at everything and did the final purchasing. I never had any information about the final cost, but we did buy very well because it was a depressed time in the art market. The total cost of everything couldn’t have been more than $40 million.”

With the help of important dealers around the world, Stein also worked to identify works in collections as far afield as Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. Notable among these were pieces by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh. 

One of Stein’s favorite acquisitions was Paul Gauguin’s 1889 Still Life with Head-Shaped Vase and Japanese Woodcut, which was bought at auction from the estate of collector and Holocaust survivor Josef Rosensaft, who had died in 1975.

“It is a very beautiful painting,” Stein says. “The interesting thing about it is that the jug is actually a self-portrait of Gauguin. It was important to acquire works that were self-portraits or portraits of the artist as a compliment to whatever works were in the collection by those artists. It was meant to be educational for people who lived in the middle of Asia and didn't necessarily know who these people were.”

Another favorite was Pablo Picasso’s 1951 bronze, Baboon and Young, which incorporated his son Claude’s toy car as the baboon’s head. It was one of several Picassos. “For major artists, it was important to have many works, because you need to be able to see the evolution of style.”

Giacometti’s Walking Man (1960) and Standing Woman (1964) were also highlights, along with Mark Rothko’s Sienna, Orange and Black on Dark Brown (1962).

Stein also started the first art history library in Iran, acquiring and cataloging, along with Iranian staff, over 10,000 books, which remain at the museum.


Farah's Legacy

The dealers Stein dealt with, she says, welcomed the prospect of a major gallery in Iran.

“Everyone was excited at the idea that a museum was being formed from the ground up in middle of Asia that was focusing on western culture and ideas, and was going to be used for an educational purpose in that part of the world,” she says. “People were very supportive of what this institution could be, and that was the appeal to me as well. It was such an honor to be part of trying to achieve the goals that had been set by the queen.”

Stein met Farah in 1976, although their engagement was limited. They became better acquainted after the revolution, and Stein interviewed her in 1990. The interview appeared in a 2013 anthology, Performing the Iranian State.

Farah, she points out, was not only interested in western art, but in securing Iran’s cultural heritage. “Under auspices of her foundation, she restored many buildings that needed to be cared for all around the country,” Stein says. “She helped save the patrimony of her country. She also helped establish the Negaristan museum of Qajar art, and museums for Persian carpets and Lorestan bronzes. It was really an amazing moment.”

The opening of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in October 1977 was a major event. For the occasion, Stein prepared two exhibitions, one on the history of photography, and one on prints and drawings. “It was a very festive and exciting time. People had come from all over the world – artists and art historians, curators, museum directors and critics.”

Among the visitors were New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his wife Happy, Guggenheim director Thomas Messer, the conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, and the performance artist Marilyn Wood. Planeloads of visitors, Stein says, were also taken sightseeing in Shiraz and Isfahan.

Less than a year and half later, In January 1979, Farah and the Shah fled Iran amid mounting revolutionary unrest. In February, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to establish the Islamic Republic. The museum was shuttered, and its collection would remain below ground until an exhibition of pop art in 1999, during the relatively liberal era of President Mohammad Khatami.

“I have not been back to Iran since 1977, when I went to the opening,” Stein says. While she regrets that much of the collection has remained largely inaccessible, she still hopes to see the work again. “The collection is in good condition, and that’s important. Things change, and it seems like things are changing at the moment. I would go back to Iran if the circumstances were right.”


Donna Stein has written a chapter about her work on the Museum of Contemporary Art's photography collection for The Indigenous Lens: Early Photography in the Near and Middle East, edited by Markus Ritter and Staci Gem Scheiwiller. It will be published in April by De Gruyter.

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