Iran keeps Picassos in basement

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

TEHRAN -- Habibollah Sadeghi looks vaguely irritated to see me: not surprised, seeing as he has spent the last 10 days evading my phone calls, letters and polite appeals delivered through intermediaries. He knows I want to see his Picassos. He doesn't want to show them to me.

But Iranian hospitality being what it is, Sadeghi is forced to invite me into his office for tea. "I got your letter," he says. "Frankly, I was somewhat offended that you seem to think our paintings are like some big nuclear secret. They are not a secret at all."

"I know," I reply. "That's why I came to see them."

We are not talking about the paintings on the wall at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which Sadeghi directs. Those are, at the moment, a stylish if bland collection of Iranian textile and costume design for the fashion-conscious and appropriately modest Iranian woman.

No, we're talking about the outlaw paintings in the basement, locked in the museum's vault. Not just the Picassos -- the Kandinskys, the Miros, the Warhols. The Monet, the Pissarro, the Toulouse-Lautrec, the Van Gogh. Possibly the best Jackson Pollock outside the U.S.

Ruled by one of the most vehemently anti-Western governments in the world, Iran is, by many assessments, home to the most extensive collection of late 19th and 20th century Western art outside the West. It is a treasure trove of masters that is all but forgotten outside knowledgeable art circles because, for all but a few of the last 30 years, it has been virtually unseen.

Assembled during the waning years of the shah's regime, when the oil boom of the 1970s rendered the country flush with cash, the collection debuted two years before the Islamic Revolution. Except for occasional international loans, a pair of small-scale shows and a daring exhibition two years ago during the administration of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, it disappeared from view thereafter....

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