Inside Iran's Billion-Dollar Art Basement

The Islamic republic has a unequalled collection of modern Western masters.

ByABC News
March 1, 2008, 9:26 PM

TEHRAN, Iran, March 1, 2008— -- It's one of the finest collections of modern art anywhere in the world, but you won't find it in New York or Paris.

Dozens of works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock -- together valued at roughly $3 billion -- are locked in a basement in Tehran.

Only a handful of westerners have had an up-close look at the underground archives in Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art. ABC News was granted exclusive access inside the vault that holds a priceless collection Iranian authorities choose to keep locked away.

What was revealed was astonishing: a series of paintings by Picasso; a wall's worth of pop art by Roy Lichtenstein; Warhol portraits of Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe; a Diego Rivera self portrait; and a painting many consider to be the best Jackson Pollock outside of North America.

The collection was supposed to be a gift to the Iranian people. It was assembled by the Shah of Iran and his wife using public funds during the oil boom of the 1970s. Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art was inaugurated in 1977, designed to be one of the world's landmark modern art institutions, with an international collection worthy of that ambition.

But just months later came the Islamic Revolution. The Shah was deposed, Ayatollah Khomeinei was became the country's leader, and in the Revolutionary, anti-American climate the museum's western art was banished to the basement.

Why aren't the pieces shown to the public? The reasons are a mix of ideology and practicality.

The collection is huge and the museum small. Museum director Dr. Habibollah Sadeghi, himself a painter appointed by conservative President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, says there is no space to properly put the works on display.

Others question whether the museum could properly protect the valuable pieces from theft or damage were they displayed openly.

Conservative Muslim ideology -- a powerful governing force in Iran -- has played a similarly forceful role in keeping the pieces underground. Aside from the anti-Western overtones of Revolutionary Iran many of the pieces are considered too racy for a conservative Muslim society.