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BEHIND THE IRAN CURTAIN

IRANIANS ARE EMBOLDENED BY THE LIFTING OF SANCTIONS, BUT THE BATTLE BETWEEN CONSERVATIVES AND REFORMERS IS FAR FROM DECIDED

Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin. Iranian curators say the collection is estimated to be worth $5 billion, but only a select group of people have seen it since the 1979 revolution. A few days after I arrived in Tehran in February, I was given a rare opportunity: a private underground tour of the former shah’s art collection, one of the largest in the Middle East, housed in a building that the shah’s wife, Farah Pahlavi, erected in the 1970s. There have been occasional limited exhibits, but most of the art has been in storage for decades. A few lucky visitors are now allowed to view the collection, and there are negotiations underway for at least part of it to travel to Germany and the U.S. in 2016.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN

“What do you want to see first?” I was asked as huge canvases were wheeled out one by one. There was an Andy Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong and an enormous painting by Pablo Picasso. (The collection is said to include some risqué works, including ones by Picasso and Edvard Munch, but I was not shown those.) I stood in the cavernous, slightly dusty room and stared in awe. Upstairs, Chinese tourists, wearing smog masks to protect against Tehran’s notorious pollution, were wandering through the gardens, gazing at Alberto Giacometti sculptures and looking at the paintings of a gifted Iranian artist, Farideh Lashai, who died in 2013. We could have been at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Tate in London. Later, I sat in the museum’s sunlit café with Vida Zaim, who is working with her colleague Leila Varasteh, a Paris-based curator, to bridge the gap between the West and Iran through art. We drank Italian coffee and talked about how her country is changing. “As an Iranian, I’m very proud to know that many Western museums are discussing showing a part of this unseen collection to the outside world,” she says.

DEEP IN THE BASEMENT OF THE TEHRAN MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, BEHIND A DOOR THAT OPENS WITH A SPOKED WHEEL LIKE A BANK VAULT, ARE SOME 2,000 PAINTINGS BY ARTISTS SUCH AS FRANCIS BACON, RENÉ MAGRITTE,

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Behind the Iran Curtain - Iranians are emboldened by the lifting of sanctions, but the battle between conservatives and reformers is far from decided.
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