Art and sanctions

Reuters

Students from Tehran's Art University look at paintings by 19th-20th century French painter and sculptor Fernand Henri Leger at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art June 19, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • Selling antiques through Christie's might bring more reward than offering heirlooms in Tehran's makeshift weekend flea markets.

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  • A Western auction house on Kish would also allow Iranian authorities to raise hard currency.

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  • Iran's attempt to convince Christie's to open an office in Iran would, in its mind restore, Iran to its rightful place in the world's cultural landscape.

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Iranian culture is tremendously rich. Art museums dot central Tehran, prominent Iranian universities teach art, and Iranians have traditionally been fierce patrons and collectors of fine art. Decades of economic mismanagement coupled with sanctions have eroded the Iranian middle class. Iranian society today is increasingly divided into super wealthy and poor.

Against this backdrop, the Iranian approach toward Christie's Auction serves several purposes. Christie's has 32 offices and salesrooms across the world, but only two in the Middle East: in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Iranian Ministry of Culture's attempt, however futile, to convince Christie's to open an office in Iran would, in its mind restore, Iran to its rightful place in the world's cultural landscape. While Kish Island might sound like a random location, the Iranian government has developed it as an outlet to the outside world, the only location in Iran where no visa is required and anyone is welcome, except Israelis. Many Iranians visit Kish for its duty-free shopping and, during the winter, for its beach resorts.

The Iranian initiative to entice Christie's to Kish might serve other purposes as well. As the Iranian economy contracts, some once middle or upper class Iranians are cash poor but have family heirlooms and art for which there might be an international market. Selling antiques through Christie's might bring more reward than offering heirlooms in Tehran's makeshift weekend flea markets.

Upon the success of the Islamic Revolution, the Foundation of the Oppressed and Dispossessed (Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan) seized the assets of many wealthy Iranians whom it deemed too close to the Shah. As Iran faces a cash crunch, and at a time when international interest in Iranian art is growing, a Western auction house on Kish would also allow Iranian authorities to raise hard currency and perhaps replenish foreign currency reserves depleted during the Ahmadinejad presidency.

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Michael
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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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