Two utterly disparate artworks now on view in Manhattan—a centuries-old masterpiece and a modernist grotesque of immense price—are linked by a history that has remained largely in the shadows. At the Metropolitan Museum's newly reopened Islamic galleries you can see the first, the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, or parts of it at least. A gloriously illuminated manuscript from the 16th century, generally considered one of Muslim civilization's foremost artistic expressions, it came to be known as the "Houghton" Shahnama. Why it is no longer called that, why the Met has some 78 of the initial 258 pictorial folios, and how and why the remainder of the original volume went back to Iran in a clandestine swap for the second artwork are all part of the story.
You can see that second work, simply known as "Woman III," at the Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 9 as part of "de Kooning: A Retrospective." Willem de Kooning's prominent place in modernist art needs no expounding here. Suffice to say the painting last changed hands, into the possession of hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, in 2006 for $137.5 million. Mr. Cohen purchased "Woman III" from entertainment magnate David Geffen, who had acquired it from the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1994 via a Swiss dealer. "Woman III" originally went to Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art in the 1970s during the last shah's time and had remained there since.
Up until 1994, the Shahnama's owner was Arthur Houghton Jr. of the Corning Glass Houghtons. He gave Harvard its Houghton Library and presided for many years as chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic. Four years after Houghton's death in 1990, "Woman III" was exchanged for what remained intact of the Shahnama (118 paintings with 500 pages of calligraphy plus exquisite binding). That much is on the public record. And when the intricate deal was done and "Woman III" sold off, some $9.5 million went to the Houghton family trust. Virtually unknown, however, is the role of Arthur Houghton III in the stealthy deal—one that required steely nerves, considering his job at the time. A longtime foreign-service officer, he worked in an office of the White House, advising on international strategies in the war on drugs while Iran was still under an official U.S. embargo dating from the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Then, as now, relations between the countries were icy. The younger Mr. Houghton remembers the mood as "extreme hostility bordering on paranoia."
The Shahnama, or "Book of Kings," began life as a 10th-century verse epic by the Persian poet Firdausi chronicling the mythological adventures of Persia's pre-Islamic rulers. In the mid-16th century Shah Tahmasp of the Savafid dynasty, which first united Iran under Shi'ism as the state religion, commissioned a pictorial manuscript of the epic. His court deployed the Muslim world's finest artists. Some went on to launch the tradition of Moghul miniatures in India. Tahmasp intended the work as an act of propaganda and legitimation, linking his dynasty to the country's old genesis myths. In the end, in the 1560s he gave the volume to the new Ottoman ruler, Sultan Selim ll, as a gift—a peace offering after some 40 years of war between the two globe-spanning empires.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the Shahnama mysteriously disappeared from Istanbul and in 1903 resurfaced in the possession of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. In 1959, Arthur Houghton Jr. acquired it as a possible gift to Harvard. Instead he kept it, perhaps thinking of the Met as a better recipient. In 1964, a highly respected Harvard curator was permitted to photocopy the volume's content and had it painstakingly unbound. With the work in that condition, Houghton began to disperse various pictorial pages, first as a gift to the Met, then as a way to establish the gift's tax value by selling other pages, and again in a straight sale of a painted page—perhaps the book's finest—to the Aga Khan. Many art scholars regard Houghton's conduct as bafflingly destructive. He was, after all, a great friend to the arts. Whatever his thinking at the time, his son, as executor of his late father's estate, took on the volume's sale but refused to break it up any further. He contacted Oliver Hoare, a leading young London dealer in Islamic art, a popular figure with close connections to Britain's royal family.
After several false starts, Mr. Hoare found a possible buyer: The Iranian state. Despite the extreme risk to his job, the younger Mr. Houghton signed on to the idea—not least because it offered the chance to make honorable restitution by repatriating the much-depleted masterpiece. The negotiations involved numerous middlemen and inevitably fell through several times until the Iranians formed a top-level task force comprising supreme leader Ali Khamenei, President Hashemi Rafsanjani and other leading figures. Still in recovery from a decade's war with Iraq, Iran's treasury was so diminished that an executive decision was made to trade pieces from the Museum of Modern Art in Tehran in lieu of cash. The entire process took more than three years. Early on, Mr. Houghton asked Mr. Hoare always to use code over the phone, referring to Iran as Spain and the Shahnama as an orange shipment. Mr. Hoare almost scuttled everything by absentmindedly phoning Mr. Houghton at his White House office to say that "the Iranians are really interested in the Shahnama." For his part, Mr. Houghton made sure never to phone from his office.
Speaking of it on the record for the first time, Mr. Houghton says, "The deal involved huge risks to everyone: myself, Oliver Hoare and the Iranian leaders. But none of us could put it down."
With the help of Swiss art dealers and other intermediaries, the deal went through. On July 27, the Shahnama traveled in wooden crates from a Lloyd's bank vault in London to a Paris airport for inspection by Iranian art experts, then on to Vienna's airport. The next day, a high-level delegation of mullahs arrived in a government Boeing 727, offloaded the de Kooning onto the tarmac and took away the Shahnama to Tehran, where it remains today at the Tehran Museum.
Thinking back, Mr. Houghton savors the achievement: "All of us felt we were in the grip of a great event, the return of this majestic work to its country of origin—and the symmetry of 'Woman III' returning to America." He adds with some amazement, "And the damn thing is—it worked!"
(1st) The Feast of Sada,' from the Shah Tahmasp's Shahnama. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Via The Wall Street Journal