According to experts the manuscript Shahnameh, mistakenly known as Houghton's Shahnameh, is the biggest Iranian work of art. This book which was compiled upon the instruction of Shah Tahmasb I (1524-1576) originally contained 258 miniatures. During the 35 years that Arthur Houghton possessed the book only 118 plates had survived in the work. Houghton who owned the Corning Geass was a famous book connoisseur and book lover. In 1959, Houghton purchased the Shahnameh from Edmond de Rothschild, a rich French Jewish national. Rothschild had so carefully preserved the work that the miniatures had not been even exposed to light and they had remained intact in the same way that they had been fabricated some 400 years ago.
According to an article from Souren Melikian in Art and Auction magazine dated October 1994, since 1962 Arthur Houghton dissected the book into sheets and displayed several miniatures in New York Metropolitan Museum and donated 88 miniatures to the same museum to escape paying tax which the American government was demanding. As to how Thomas Honing, the manager of the New York Metropolitan Museum, accepted the gift is a controversial topic, but the story of Houghton's Shahnameh did not end with this donation.
In 1976 Houghton proposed the Shah to purchase the Shahnameh at a price of $20 million, but the Shah refused to buy it at that price. This led Houghton to put the miniatures and the whole Shahnameh into auction in Christie's (an artworks auction center) in London on Nov 17, 1976. Another auction took place in 1988 in which 14 miniatures were sold to art collectors. The highest price was paid to Christie's for plate number 295 on Oct 11, 1988, when it fetched 253,000 Pounds Sterling.
Upon the death of this art connoisseur in 1990, the Houghton Foundation decided to sell all that had survived from the valuable collection at a price of 70 million French franks or about $13 million, but few had the money to buy the costly treasure. As a result Oliver Hoare, a British seller, suggested Tehran to exchange the remaining Shahnameh with De Kooning's Lady No. 3 which had been rejected by Iranian Officials for display to public for being anti-Islamic. Lady No. 3 is a painting from Willem de Kooning, a Dutch painter, who was born in 1904 in Holland and immigrated to the United States in 1926. He was one of the greatest painters in New York and his lady portraits are the sum of his exquisite art. His first work of his lady portraits is being kept in the New York Contemporary Arts Galley. The portrait of Lady No. 3 is a radical expressionist work from De Kooning which was painted during years 1952-53. It must be reminded that one of De Kooning's paintings was sold at $18 million in Southely's auction in 1989. Oliver Hoare has quoted David Sylvester, the great British art critic, as saying that the Tahmasbi Shahnameh was worth at least 20 paintings from De Kooning, and that Houghton Foundation had been a looser in exchanging the work with one painting from De Kooning and that the Iranian government had actually recovered the Shahnameh gratis. Sylvester made the statement during an exhibition of De Kooning's pictures in Tate Gallery in London last March.
In this transaction one can see the ugly treatment of Eastern artwork in all dimensions by Western art critics and connoisseurs. The same people such as Houghton who are themselves responsible to protect Western artworks are to be blamed for destroying the world artistic heritage (Houghton had been the director of New York Metropolitan Museum for several years). Perhaps one reason for this misconduct is that the Western officials do not pay enough attention to foreign culture and art. The officials in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran who have been libeled as enemy to art and culture in the Western press, boldly and efficiently returned this remnant of genuine Iranian art to the country. If Houghton Foundation has exchanged the masterpiece of Iranian painting of the 16th century with De Kooning's Lady No. 3, this is because they wanted to sell the Shahnameh. Surely the De Kooning's painting which is famous for ugliness in the Western artistic circles can in no way rival the excellent Iranian miniatures, but such a rash exchange of artworks may teach the Western museums, galleries and art sellers to reconsider their evaluation of international works of art and better protect them.
Tahmasbi Shahnameh is an exceptional work of art in which several great Safavid master painters and their students were engaged. This is a treasure house of the best painting in Iran. Tahmasbi Shahnameh was completed and perfected within a period of 30 years by masters such as Mir Mosavar, Sultan Mohammad, Aqa Mirak, Doost Mohammad, Mirza Ali, Mir Seyed Ali, Mozafar Ali, Abdolsamad, and tens of other artists.
The Iranian Contemporary Art Museum displayed 30 miniatures out of 118 works surviving from Tahmasbi Shahnameh in Galley No. 9. In these paintings which form nearly one-fourth of the miniatures returned to the country, a whole cycle of Iranian painting and aesthetics can be shown. These works show that although the change and development in painting has been slow, the process has been permanent and has presented great masters and stylists to the Iranian art circle who have not remained stalled and have always moved toward perfection. Several works from Sultan Mohammad, the greatest Iranian miniaturist, show that not even two of his works follow the same standards and rules and from one painting to another the painter has sought perfection and change. Such an evolution has been made in the following regions:
Changing the size of painting frame according to the context of the poem. In other words at times a frame has been stretched into rectangular from bottom to the top and at times it is square.
The change in colors. In this system the painter has started with soft and uniform colors and has produced very lively and delightful paintings.
Changing the composition of elements in the miniatures such as trees, leaves, rocks, flowers and shrubs and other unimportant things such as human garments and horse trappings.
Changing in the combination in which sometimes the painter paints the images by circular, horizontal and vertical movements.
Changing the grouping of elements into groups of men, group of branches and leaves, group of animals, rocks, flowers and shrubs.
Changing the geometry of painting by using straight, horizontal, vertical, oblique, circular, Eslimi script, serpentine, rectangular lines, etc. (such as Kyioumars's court).
Using various uniform proportions, sometimes from relation of Kh-2 (1.414) to the unit, sometimes from Kh-3 (1.723) to the unit, sometimes from 1.5 to the unit, and or 1.618 to the unit which is known as `Golden Ratio'.
Introducing new inventions mostly in the creation of mountains, rocks and plants. In these new method the painter benefits from single lines or a combination of pure and contrasting colors. He sometimes use more than 10 colors by mixing the colors and using connecting, contrasting and complementary colors.
Giving volume to combination of elements especially animals, stones, rocks, branches and trees. The painter does not always resort to engrossing the stature and it is done at special occasions for example when the Iranians mount Damavand Mountain to meet King Kyioumars.
Creating ultrarealistic spaces in certain scenes such as when the Simorgh, is seen by the caravan. To display the huge wings, plums and the tail of the bird, the painter has used very intense and beautiful azure, emerald, violet, pink, light red, etc, colors in keeping and in harmony with the general outline. Also in order not to hurt the eye the rocks, the mountains and hills are painted in the same color used for the Simorgh. What is more interesting is that their shape and movement has been wholly metamorphosed as if the Simorgh's flight has caused everything including dead objects to move.
That which is visible in the majority of miniatures in the Shahnameh is pure colors which has remained unchanged. The reason for such stable color is that due to lack of knowledge of Persian language, the Shahnameh has never been opened for reading and only at rare occasions the paintings have been shown to viewers. This has helped to preserve the integrity of colors and freshness of paper.
On the other hand the knowledge displayed in the colors and the purity and origin of colors is perfect. The proportion of yellow colors to azure, rouge to green, and red to blue green, and the proportion of hot colors against cold colors and as a whole the proportion of the prevailing colors to the complementary colors is visible in all the paintings. This shows that the painters of Safavid period who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D. were fully aware of all the scientific rules of visual arts and used the rules in their works with full awareness.
Whether assessed for their colors or values, one can see that the painters have fully respected the amount of main and complementary colors and some painters besides being attentive to paints have been also attentive to their art. This is the reason why great artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, etc. are so much in love with Iranian paintings.
In many of these miniatures, the number of characters in one painting reaches 45 to 50 persons. When we add the animals (which at times exceed a hundred), the plants, rocks and buildings, etc, to the landscape, we can note that despite so much diversity in the Tahmasbi Shahnameh, the paintings do not disturb the viewer. On the contrary various colors help the viewer to better distinguish the various pieces in the picture.
Each of the paintings in Tahmasbi paintings are valuable and needs to be examined separately.