What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection
Claude Monet’s Environs de Giverny (1885). (Photo: Skira)

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

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In 1975, Donna Stein embarked on a semi-secret, two-year effort to build a contemporary art collection for the empress of Iran.

Before she was hired as part of the empresses’s private secretariat, Stein was an assistant curator in the prints and illustrated books department at MoMA and was given very little direction before and during her tenure in Tehran.

There was no budget (“no figure is available, and I doubt it will become any clearer,” a colleague wrote in advance of her starting the job) and no real guidance about acquisitions. “My recommendations for purchase should encompass the history of modern art,” she writes in her new book The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected, and Rediscovered Modern Art (Skira, $45). “Eventually, the collection would include the whole spectrum of technical possibilities in art making.”

Stein, who most recently was deputy director of the Wende Museum in California, has written the book, she says in its forward, because “my bosses at the Private Secretariat, to whom I nominally reported (as well as subsequent caretakers of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art where the collection remains in deep storage) have boldly grabbed the credit for my aesthetic choices.”

Thus, she continues, “I have finally written The Empress and I to correct the record.”

Using her own correspondence as documentation, Stein tells the story of a department operating in secrecy and bogged down by corruption, which managed to nevertheless acquire some of the 20th century’s greatest artworks. These works would exist in the public sphere for just two years before the Shah’s fall in 1979. 

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

By telling her side of the story and correcting whatever inaccuracies might be in circulation, Stein vivifies and dramatizes a collection that’s grown exponentially in value—contemporary estimates put it at $3 billion—if not historic import over the past half-century.

Acquiring the Collection

The process of Stein’s acquisitions could generously be described as haphazard. For all her detailed research reports, Stein’s superiors, who were political appointees, made the final decision about acquiring work.

“My role was as a person to establish quality, value, rarity,” Stein says in a phone interview. “I was never part of the bargaining process.” 

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

As a result, much of The Empress and I will be of value to anyone interested in the history of the 20th century art market—the legendary dealers Ernst Beyeler, Eugene Thaw, and Leo Castelli make appearances—but it might feel a little “inside-baseball” for anyone hoping for eye-popping tales of excess.

Stein says that in total, she estimates she spent some $25 to $30 million (about $126 million to $151 million in today’s dollars) on some 350 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs in her two years in Tehran.

“Building an important collection was daunting and dependent on the vagaries of the art market,” she writes. “With even reasonably unlimited funds available, it would undoubtedly prove almost impossible to acquire major paintings by some artists simply due to their rarity.”

Later, she continues, she learned that funds for the purchases were siphoned from the Iranian government’s oil revenues.

What She Bought

During her tenure, Stein writes, Tehran acquired its most famous artwork: Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950), for which Stein suggests the Iranians paid about $850,000.

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

“Apart from two other important paintings that may or may not come up for sale and that would probably cost two million dollars or more, this painting seems to be the best available one,” wrote the dealer Castelli, when consulted on the Pollock work’s merits. (Most recently, when the painting went on tour a decade ago, it was insured at a value of $250 million.)

They also acquired a spectacular sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man I, (1956-1960), made at the height of his career; two massive sculptures by Henry Moore; multiple paintings by Mark Rothko; and a superb oil painting by Willem de Kooning, Light in August from about 1946.

Works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Mary Cassatt, and dozens of others made their way to Tehran, earmarked for the permanent collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

Additionally, Stein says that she bought about 10,000 art books. “I argued for the things I wanted,” she says, “and in most cases I would say I got what I wanted.”

Stein is hazier about what was added to the collection after she left in 1977; it is hard to differentiate the later acquisitions from modern art seized by the Islamic government from private individuals who went into exile after the revolution concluded in 1979. “I would say that a number of the Western [artworks] are from the people who’d left,” she says.

Today, the museum’s collection totals some 1,500 works of art, including Iranian art and its western counterparts.

Walking Away

Stein, who says that paychecks were inevitably delayed, anti-Semitism was prevalent if not pervasive, and the byzantine bureaucracy was enervating, finally left her job in 1977. It was only after that that she began to speak with Farah Pahlavi, the Shahbanu of Iran and Stein’s ostensible employer.

What It Took to Assemble Iran’s $3 Billion Modern Art Collection

“I was with her less than half a dozen times at events and openings, but I never interacted with her,” Stein says of her time under the empress. “And I never talked about what I was doing, or the art, though she sort of knew what I was doing.”

Stein engaged at length with Pahlavi only after she and the Shah had fled the country.

Eleven years after the revolution in 1990, Stein had an on-the-record conversation with the former empress, the full text of which is included in the book. Today, Stein writes, “The Empress and I continue to speak from time to time as issues of interest to both of us arise.”

But for a book with the word Empress in the title, there’s very little do with Pahlavi herself. Instead, the book “intends to measure in historical, cultural, and aesthetic terms [...] the value of what became a core collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary art,” Stein writes.

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