The Book of Kings returned to Iran by US in exchange for de Kooning painting

The greatest surviving Persian manuscript was swapped for Woman III, once owned by the Shah of Iran


In an extraordinary swap, the greatest surviving Persian manuscript has been given to Iran in return for a $20 million de Kooning painting of a naked woman. The secret exchange took place in July at Vienna Airport.

The Shahnameh (Book of Kings), once owned by former Metropolitan Museum chairman Arthur Houghton, went back to Iran after more than 400 years. His heirs have now acquired de Kooning’s “Woman III”, a picture which the Iranians felt was incompatible with Islamic values. The Tate Gallery, which is holding a major de Kooning exhibition next February, is now negotiating to borrow the masterpiece.

The Iranian embassy in London has confirmed to The Art Newspaper that the swap took place with the approval of Vice-President Hassan Habibi. Plans for the exchange were kept secret because the Iranians feared that it might spark off a hue and cry against the Islamic Republic.

“It was a very astute move by Iran”, commented British Museum oriental specialist Sheila Canby. The sixteenth-century Shahnameh which the Iranians have obtained is the most beautiful copy of this important text. It is richly decorated with some of the finest Persian miniature paintings and Christie’s has described it as “one of the most sumptuous manuscripts ever created”.

The Shahnameh was owned by the heirs of Arthur Houghton Jr, the Corning glass tycoon who died in 1990. It is then believed to have gone to a family foundation. Two years ago Houghton’s beneficiaries approached Iran, asking whether it would be interested in the manuscript and saying that a Western source had already made an offer of $20 million.

A swap for the Shahnameh was proposed, both because Iran is short of hard currency and to avoid problems over sanctions. Since the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis the two countries have had no diplomatic links and there are still trade restrictions.

Houghton’s heirs initially wanted to exchange the Shahnameh for ten paintings, but the Iranians struck a hard bargain. After months of haggling, a secret swap was arranged for “Woman III”. Calculating the precise financial value of “Woman III” is difficult but de Kooning’s “Interchange” sold at Sotheby’s five years ago for $18.8 million, a record price for the work of a living American artist.

Following the swap agreement, the Shahnameh was examined in Paris by Iranian experts, who checked its authenticity and witnessed the priceless manuscript being packed into nine sealed boxes. Agents acting for the Houghton estate flew to Teheran to inspect the de Kooning.

On 28 July an Iranian aircraft flew to Vienna with the painting. A van carrying the Shahnameh drove up to the aircraft and the de Kooning was unloaded. Agents for both sides entered the van, checked the seals and the boxes were exchanged.

The Shahnameh was then flown back to Iran and brought to the Vice-President’s office. A local Reuters correspondent was shown the Shahnameh’s magnificent leather cover with gold inlay as well as some of the 501 folios of text and 118 miniature paintings.

Meanwhile “Woman III”, a large canvas nearly six foot by four, was moved from Austria and is now at an undisclosed location elsewhere in Europe. Dating from 1952, it is considered one of the Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning’s masterpieces.

The painting is thought to have been acquired by the Shah in the 1970s and was later deposited at Teheran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. After Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power, de Kooning’s naked woman was regarded as offensive and the picture was hidden away in a store.

“Woman III” had not been seen since 1978 and there were fears that it might have been destroyed. “The painting is one of de Kooning’s most important works. I am very excited that it has reappeared”, said Marla Prather, a curator at the National Gallery in Washington. She is also co-organiser of the de Kooning exhibition being held to celebrate the artist’s ninetieth birthday, a show which has just closed in Washington and opens at the Metropolitan Museum on 11 October.

There has not been enough time to negotiate the loan of “Woman III” for the New York stage of the exhibition, although it is likely that it will be lent when the exhibition moves to the Tate next February. The picture would be particularly welcome because “Woman VI” from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum is being shown at the two American venues, but will not be coming to London.

The Iranians have achieved a major coup in acquiring the Shahnameh. The text of 50,000 rhyming couplets which records the legends of the kings of Persia was completed in AD 1010 by the poet Firdawsi. The magnificent copy now known as the Houghton Shahnameh was made in Tabriz in the 1520s for Shah Tahmasp. It was presented to the Ottoman Sultan Selim III in 1568 and it remained in the Topkapi Palace Treasury in Constantinople.

In the late nineteenth-century the manuscript was bought by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and in 1959 the estate of Maurice de Rothschild sold it to Houghton, reputedly for $400,000. The great-grandson of the founder of the Corning Glass Company, Houghton was an extremely wealthy bibliophile. In the 1940s he served as curator of rare books at the Library of Congress and this makes it more difficult to understand his subsequent decision to dismember the Shahnameh.

Soon after his acquisition of the Shahnameh, Houghton had the binding removed so that the miniature paintings could be photographed. Then in 1970 he presented seventy-eight sheets to the Metropolitan Museum. This put the museum in a very difficult position. Curators were horrified that the Shahnameh was being dispersed, but there were hopes that eventually Houghton might present them with the rest of the manuscript.

What made the situation even more sensitive was that Houghton had been a trustee of the Metropolitan since 1952 and was then its chairman. This would have made it very awkward to refuse his gift, but acceptance was seen as putting the museum’s seal of approval on the Shahnameh’s dispersal.

In 1975 Houghton tried to sell the remainder of the Shahnameh to the Shah of Iran, son of the self-proclaimed successor to the ancient Persian kings. One source claimed that Houghton suggested a figure of $28.5 million, “barely the price of a Lockheed bomber”. The deal fell through.

Houghton then started selling off some of the finest pages. A single miniature was bought by Iran in 1975 for $150,000 and is now at the Reza Abassi National Museum in Teheran. Seven sheets were auctioned by Christie’s the following year, fetching £785,000. A further seventeen miniatures were sold through the London dealer Agnew’s in 1979. Fourteen more were sold at Christie’s six years ago.

Other miniatures were sold privately. Among public collections which have now acquired several of the painted folios is the Museum for Islamic Art in Dahlem, Berlin.

At the time of his death in 1990, Houghton still had the full 501 folios of the text. Of the original 258 miniatures, seventy-eight were at the Metropolitan, sixty-two had been sold and he retained 118. Iran has therefore acquired the full text and just under half the original illustrations. It is expected that the manuscript will now be kept at Teheran’s National Museum.

Houghton once tried to justify the dismemberment by saying that the manuscript should not be in one place because “the risks of fire, war, civil disturbance and theft are too great”. He added that he wanted the pages “widely dispersed so that they can be seen and appreciated by the largest number of persons”.

But museum curators are horrified at what Houghton did to the Shahnameh. “It is extremely unfortunate that it was dispersed. As a great work of art, the whole was much more important than the sum of the parts. It is one of the saddest events to have happened in Persian scholarship”, said Sheila Canby.

The Iranians are also expected to try and acquire any of the remaining miniatures from the Shahnameh which come up for sale. An approach may even be made to the Metropolitan to ask about the possibility of acquiring their seventy-eight miniatures.

If owners of the Shahnameh’s dispersed miniatures prove amenable, another swap is still a possibility. After all, the Teheran museum is believed to have another de Kooning masterpiece, his 1946 painting “Light in August”, along with other Impressionist works acquired by the Shah.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Book of Kings for a de Kooning'