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Society & Culture

Theft Plagues Iran's Palaces and Museums

March 27, 2024
Shohreh Mehrnami
4 min read
For years, revolutionaries have claimed that the former Shah's family left the country with jewels and valuables from Iran's palaces
For years, revolutionaries have claimed that the former Shah's family left the country with jewels and valuables from Iran's palaces
Recently numerous reports have emerged detailing the disappearance of items left in palaces, ranging from looting by individuals who seized control after the revolution to the most recent incident: the loss of the exquisite carpets from Saad Abad Palace
Recently numerous reports have emerged detailing the disappearance of items left in palaces, ranging from looting by individuals who seized control after the revolution to the most recent incident: the loss of the exquisite carpets from Saad Abad Palace
One of the most notable thefts in the last 45 years from Iranian museums is the Achaemenid Golden Tablet
One of the most notable thefts in the last 45 years from Iranian museums is the Achaemenid Golden Tablet

For years, revolutionaries have claimed that the former Shah's family left the country with jewels and valuables from Iran's palaces. 

Recently numerous reports have emerged detailing the disappearance of items left in palaces, ranging from looting by individuals who seized control after the revolution to the most recent incident: the loss of the exquisite carpets from Saad Abad Palace. 

The pillaging of Saad Abad Palace was a daily occurrence in the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

One surviving member of the court staff, entrusted with maintaining and protecting palace property post-revolution, recounted in an interview with a news outlet that following the revolution, the palaces became targets, attracting ordinary people intent on looting.

According to Mohammad Reza Moradi, Saad Abad endured continuous looting for three days due to the lack of guards, allowing anyone to enter and plunder at will. 

Many seized the opportunity to take various items during this period. To safeguard the items from further plundering, they were relocated to the White Palace, now the National Museum.

Former staff of Saad Abad Palace highlighted the logistical challenge of relocating the palace's assets, particularly its heavy carpets.

Records of theft exist within the historical-cultural complex of Saad Abad and the National Museum of Iran. 

However, the stolen objects from the National Museum were comparatively fewer, and those from Saad Abad were eventually recovered, except for three works by painter Mahmoud Farshchian.

The news of the disappearance of some works from the Farshchian Museum surfaced in the summer of 2006, leading to an investigation that implicated one of the museum's staff members. 

The accused was apprehended the day after the robbery and claimed to have destroyed the stolen works.

Amid accusations against the former king coinciding with the theft of Saad Abad's carpets, some government media outlets linked to the IRGC claimed last June that the Shah and Queen Farah absconded with the royal jewels. 

Government figures, including spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahrami, called for an investigation into the Pahlavi family's alleged looting, despite widespread knowledge that the royal jewels were housed in the Jewelry Museum.

As authorities sought to prosecute the Pahlavi family, news broke of the disappearance of 48 exquisite carpets from Saad Abad Palace. 

Farah Pahlavi, instrumental in transforming the palace into an artistic and cultural hub, incorporated these hand-woven carpets into its interior design, imbuing the collection with cultural significance and beauty.

The stolen collection, comprising carpets from the Qajar and Zandiye periods, was valued at an estimated 130 billion Tomans ($2.1m), with only ten of the stolen carpets recovered. 

After the carpets went missing, Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Ezzatullah Zarghami blamed the administration of former President Hassan Rouhani for the theft, though it denied responsibility.

Saad Abad Palace Museum operates under the oversight of four trustees, and the property belongs to the Mustazafan Foundation, which has entrusted its preservation to the cultural heritage sector for the past thirty years.

Control over the complex of palaces is divided among various entities, including the IRGC, the army, the presidential institution, and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. 

The presidential institution oversees the building of Hafiziyah, from which the missing objects disappeared, with its trustees managing its assets independently of the Cultural Heritage authorities. 

The judicial system has not disclosed details of the theft case involving the world's second-largest carpet collection, but the main suspect's case has been forwarded to a special clerical court, revealing the suspect's clerical status.

Theft from museums occurs worldwide, but it appears that incidents of theft from museums and palaces in Iran have escalated since the 1979 revolution.

One of the most notable thefts in the last 45 years from Iranian museums is the Achaemenid Golden Tablet. 

Discovered on September 18, 1933, beneath the main pillars of the Apadana Palace in Persepolis, it is one of the four gold and cement tablets from the palace.

In 2009 another museum fell victim to an attack resulting in the disappearance of 21 glass and earthenware items. 

The police investigation into the matter has yet to conclude.

In 2001, a bronze pin exhibited at the "Seven Thousand Years of Iranian Art" exhibition in Belgium was stolen from its case. 

As restitution, Iran received five thousand dollars in damages, equivalent to about four million tomans at the time.

These incidents serve as examples of theft from museums and palaces. Additionally, numerous cases of theft from city museums have been reported.

Maziar Kazemi, an expert in historical monument restoration, outlined three primary reasons for the significant number of thefts from Iranian museums in an interview with IranWire. 

He attributed these incidents to weak management and inadequate planning, the absence of a structured and secure system for accessing and storing works, and improper storage conditions, all contributing to thefts and the loss of valuable works from Iranian museums.

Explaining further, Kazemi stated, "When there is no standardized archival system for museum objects, it becomes easy for unauthorized individuals to gain access and manipulate the works."

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