Exhibitions: Major Islamic art collection finds a new home in America

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One of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Islamic art will go on permanent public display for the first time at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas next week. A new gallery dedicated to showing more than 100 objects from the Keir Collection, which was accumulated by the late Hungarian property developer Edmund de Unger from the 1950s onwards, opens on April 18. The collection is there on long-term loan.

By any measure de Unger’s collection is extraordinary: it encompasses 2,000 artefacts produced in the Middle East, Asia and Europe over 13 centuries, with a particularly strong emphasis on early lustreware, silk textiles, illuminated figurative manuscripts and rock crystal. The collection has rarely been seen, with the exception of a 100-strong exhibit shown a decade ago at Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art, which was also temporarily home to the collection.

Among the highlights of the new permanent display at the DMA is the rock crystal Fatimid ewer, one of only a handful in existence, that was made in Egypt in the late-10th to early-11th centuries and delicately embellished by the 19th-century French goldsmith Jean-Valentin Morel. Decorated with cheetahs and gold inlaid with enamel, the collection acquired the ewer for £3.2 million (Dh14.7m) at auction in 2008, but de Unger’s first passion, like many Islamic art enthusiasts, was for collecting carpets: “My love of Islamic art began with carpets. I first became aware of them at the age of six, when my father Richard told me not to walk on them. [My father] took me to museums, and by the age of nine I was quite a good companion to him in the salesrooms,” de Unger wrote.

“After the war and my departure from my homeland, I was once again able to continue the collecting of what my fellow Oxford undergraduates had called ‘moth-eaten rags’. Slowly, not only the floors but also the walls of my home became covered with new acquisitions.”

The new DMA gallery is evidence of the museum’s commitment to “fostering cross-cultural understanding”, according to museum director Agustín Arteaga. “The DMA is proud to inaugurate the first ever dedicated gallery space for the Keir Collection, which will illuminate the artistic traditions of the Islamic world for our local and national audiences.” Under the loan agreement, the Dallas museum has also promised to produce a digital archive of the collection to ensure that it is more accessible to academics and the public.

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.