Iran: We Will Put American Art Treasures on Display

Last week the Iranian government gave ABC News special access into its international art collection, a distinguished group of works amassed during the reign of the shah of Iran.

Ironically,the collection, estimated to be worth $3 billion, has spent most of the last 30 years locked in a basement vault, while Iran has become an Islamic republic that eschews any ties to the secular world.

From a renowned Jackson Pollock drip painting "Mural on an Indian Red Ground," to DeKoonings' "Light in August," to pop works by Warhol, Lichentstien and Oldenburg, the collection is widely considered to be one of the finest 20th century Western art collections in the world.

The rare tour was an example of what's called "track two" diplomacy: building cultural and social ties between Iran and the United States at a time when they're officially at odds.

Museum director Habibollah Sadeghi, an artist, was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He spoke to ABC News at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What are your future plans for this exhibit? Why not have it on display all the time?

Given [the tone of] society since the revolution, the museum needed to make the visual approach more compatible with our everyday social routine. Now we need more space. We are certainly hopeful to have a permanent museum to present Iran with this global contemporary art in a larger, more lasting space.

Would the museum ever sell works in the collection?

As is the case anywhere, museums, along with the local authorities, must make certain decisions. They sometimes sell, sometimes exchange. But our choice so far, has been to look at this as a steady opportunity to acquire. We are more shopper than seller.

During the war [with Iraq, 1980-1988] and the reconstruction era, [we] had less opportunity to complete our collection. We hope next year we will be able to buy pieces from the greatest contemporary painters in the world, continuing on our previous purchases of works by American and European painters. Then Iran, as a major collector of universal art, will be able to display its own perspective in the language and literature of contemporary art. We have told this to the [parliament] authorities and they have accepted gladly.

Do you have your eyes on any pieces in particular?

The method of purchase is based on the period and style of the painters to help round out our collection. We are considering buying new paintings produced after the American Pop Art era. We have identified between 50 and 80 paintings and hope to buy them from private collectors and other museums after our specialists decide which are the best and most appropriate for our collection, as we've done in the past.

We hope to buy up to 100 pieces from prominent painters in the United States and Europe next year. As we view other cultures respectfully, we expect that the others respect our history, our religious and spiritual and Islamic beliefs and culture.

Is it safe to say that you expect the collection ... will always remain intact?

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