Dallas Museum Lands a Rich Trove of Islamic Art

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Art from the Keir Collection: “Three Doctors in Discussion,” a 13th-century miniature from a translation of Dioscorides’s “De Materia Medica.” The Keir Collection of Islamic Art via Dallas Museum of Art

While Texas may have the fifth largest Muslim population in the United States by some estimates, its public art collections have only recently begun to reflect the 14-century sweep of Islamic history. But on Friday, with the stroke of a pen — sealing a complex agreement hashed out over months — the Dallas Museum of Art will become the long-term custodian of one of the most important collections of Islamic art in private hands.

The Keir Collection, amassed over decades in Britain by Edmund de Unger, a Hungarian real-estate magnate who died in 2011, will go to Dallas for at least 15 years beginning in May, under an unusual long-term renewable loan that will give the museum the right to lend pieces to other institutions and to make objects widely available to scholars. The agreement will instantly give Dallas, which now has only a few dozen Islamic pieces, perhaps the third most important Islamic collection in the country, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington.

A 10th-century rock crystal ewer from Egypt. The Keir Collection of Islamic Art via Dallas Museum of Art

With the 2011 expansion of the Islamic galleries at the Met and long-term loans and acquisitions of significant works by institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, the profile of Islamic art in the United States is rising, as threats to major collections and historic sites in parts of the Middle East come with ever greater frequency. On Jan. 24, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, one of the most important in the world, was badly damaged by a truck bomb, which destroyed more than 70 artifacts.

The Keir Collection — named for a house near London where the collector once lived — had been assumed for several years to be headed to the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, where Mr. de Unger had lent some works before his death. But Sabiha Al Khemir, a highly regarded scholar of Islamic art who was recruited to advise the Dallas museum in 2012, helped persuade the de Unger estate, controlled by the collector’s two sons, that the collection would be better served in Texas, where the museum would be able to make room to keep a few hundred works on view at a time. “They were looking for really a larger commitment for the whole collection and we could give them that,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

The collection, with about 2,000 objects, is rich in carpets and textiles, lusterware, manuscripts and rare Fatimid-period rock crystal vessels from the 10th to the 12th centuries. While the collection has been extensively published, this will be the first time the breadth of it will be seen outside of the mansion southwest of London where it was kept. “There is a kind of mystique about it, a curiosity about it, because it is known but has not been seen or studied by many,” said Ms. Al Khemir, who was the founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

Calling Dallas a “tabula rasa” for Islamic art, she said, “For the de Ungers this was about a question of a place where the collection would make a difference.”

Ms. Al Khemir, who met Mr. de Unger at his mansion when she was a young scholar, said he was a figure whose knowledge and passion turned him into a rare protector of Islamic culture. “I usually have problems with collectors — it’s about amassing, amassing,” she said. “But he had serious knowledge and serious joy in these things. You could see it in the glint of his eyes when he looked at them.”

article by Randy Kennedy via nytimes.com

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