State Hermitage Museum's show of Iranian jewellery from Patti Birch's collection recalls an age where the export of archaeological finds was legal

The Shah's policy decreed that private individuals could sponsor excavations and keep a portion of the finds


An exhibition of Middle Eastern and Persian jewellery at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (until 19 March) highlights the now unusual policy implemented by the Shah regime in Iran in the Sixties and Seventies of allowing private individuals to sponsor excavations in exchange for a small portion of the find (partage).

The objects on show in Russia are from the private collection of New Yorker, Patti Birch. They include 137 pieces of jewellery from Iran, dating from the tenth century BC to the sixteenth century. Most of the pieces date from the rise and peak of Islamic civilization, from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. The collection totals 228 items of jewellery and was acquired from 1960 until 1979, when the Shah’s regime was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists.

Ms Birch, who has worked as an art dealer and collector for the past half century, explained that the Shah’s government, at that time short of funds for archaeological digs, encouraged private sponsorship of excavations. Ms Birch was one of several individuals who acquired the jewellery in exchange for sponsorship.

“Ms Birch’s collection is one of the best collections of Middle Eastern jewellery in the world,” said Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who himself is also a scholar of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. “Few examples of gold jewellery have survived, since much of it was melted down and reused throughout the ages.”

Ms Birch’s collection was last seen in public in the late 1970s when German scholars examined and studied the pieces. Since the death of the Shah of Iran, Ms Birch has kept the collection in a safe.

The collection’s current tour began last March when it was displayed at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. From there, it travelled to Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in November. Ms Birch, a board member of the Museum of Modern Art and an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has recently become active in Russia, especially as a philanthropist. A year ago she donated $10,000 to purchase a private Moscow collection of large pieces of amber, extremely rare in nature, that were needed for the frames of the hardstone panels in the Amber Room which is currently under reconstruction in the Yekaterinsky Palace outside St Petersburg.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shah’s regime allowed export of archaeological finds'