Iran swaps 'contorted nude' for poetry book

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The Independent Online
TEHRAN - In a furtive cultural hostage swap at Vienna airport, Iran has traded a modern Western painting of a woman 'not covered' for an illuminated book of 16th-century Farsi poetry, Reuter reports.

After extensive negotiations, the Islamic state handed over Woman Three, a nude by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning. In return, it received the finest existing copy of Shahnameh, the best-read book in the Farsi language. Both works are valued at about pounds 13m.

Hassan Habibi, First Vice-President of Iran, revealed details of his country's artistic coup in Tehran yesterday. Mr Habibi said Iran had been approached two years ago by the heirs of a wealthy American art collector, Arthur Houghton, who had acquired the book in 1959. Mr Houghton's family said they had received an offer of dollars 20m but would prefer to return the book.

A process of haggling began. Iran said it did not have the money; the family offered a swap for items of Western art from the the late Shah's extensive collection. Finally a bargain was struck on Woman Three. 'It shows a contorted woman's figure whose body is not covered and shows emotions including hate,' said Mr Habibi, with evident distaste. Earier he had announced that the painting had been selected because it was incompatible with Iran's Islamic values.

Before the exchange, the Shahnameh was taken to Paris, where Iranian art connoisseurs confirmed its authenticity; Western experts inspected the De Kooning in Tehran. Last Thursday, an Iranian plane flew the De Kooning painting to Vienna. The Shahnameh arrived in nine boxes inside a van. Experts examined seals on both works of art, and the deal was done.

'We kept it secret because we were worried it might spark a hue and cry against the Islamic republic,' Mr Habibi said. 'Unfortunately they do such things against us in the world even if we do something sound.'