Islamic Art

Celebrating Nowruz: 10 Places to See Persian Art Around the World

By Colleen Leth

The cultural heritage of ancient Persia encompasses numerous art forms – from monumental architecture, ceramics, and intricate jewelry to and manuscripts, musical instruments and miniature paintings. Notable for rich ornament, reflections of cultural and regional interconnectivity, and technical innovation, Persian art has been immensely influential throughout centuries of art history. In celebration of the Persian New Year – Nowruz – Sotheby's Museum Network highlights ten of the world’s most important collections.

Siavush Marries Farangisfolio, from the first volume of a two-volume Shahname (Book of Kings). 1654. Isfahan, Iran

Collection of the Aga Khan Museum

Aga Khan Museum

Located in the North York district of Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre, and Park form a complex dedicated to exhibiting Islamic and Persian art. The museum's holdings, largely formed from the private collection of His Highness the Aga Khan, are housed in a modernist building designed by Pritzer Prize winning architect Fumihiko Maki. The collection includes over 1,000 objects, of which the manuscripts are most notable for their diversity, showcasing the variety of script and decorative styles that developed in the Muslim world from the 7th through the 18th centuries. The Aga Khan Museum is also worth a visit for its strong programme of musical performances.

Exterior Courtyard of the Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris

Institute du Monde Arabe

The Institute du Monde Arabe was established to remedy the lack of representation for Arab culture in France. The center, on Paris's left bank, aspires to provide a secular location for the promotion of Arab art and cultural heritage. The Museum exhibits over 600 works of art, including a number of Persian objects, and also hosts timely lectures and panel discussions on topics ranging from art history to geopolitics.

Marc Pelletreau/Marc Pelletreau

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Museum of Islamic Art

The I.M. Pei-designed landmark Museum of Islamic Art on Doha’s waterfront represents a full spectrum of Islamic art over 1,400 years and across three continents. The collection includes works of ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and glass from the Persian Empire. Although the museum has only been collecting since its founding in the final decades of the twentieth century, its holdings, presentation, and conservation program are on par with older collections amassed over centuries.

Reliefs from Persepolis in the National Museum of Iran

The National Museum of Iran

Located in the heart of Tehran, the National Museum of Iran is arguably a primary hub for Persian art in the Middle East. Preserving over 300,000 artifacts, the collection is split between two complexes representing the pre-Islamic and post-Islamic periods, the former of which includes artifacts from the Achaemenid, Elamite, and Parthian periods.

The New Islamic Galleries within the Visconti Courtyard, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Louvre

The Louvre is the world’s most popular museum with over 8 million visitors annually. It is also home to one of the most significant collections of Persian and Islamic art. Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti designed the new galleries of Islamic Art in 2005; the architects winning design features an iconic gold, undulating canopy within the palace’s historic Visconti Courtyard, below which two levels and 30,000 square feet of gallery space offer visitors one of the most advanced and customized settings for the appreciation of Islamic art. The intricate works on display, which span 1,200 years of art history and feature glass and ceramics, metalwork, manuscripts, textiles, and carpets, are lit in beautiful display cases with comprehensive didactic text and educational material for all ages. The collection is further enhanced by 3,500 permanent loans from Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

17th Century Persian Tiles, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Farjam Collection

Considered to be one of the finest private Islamic art collections in the world, the Farjam Collection in Dubai spans the entire history of Islam. The collection combines masterpieces from the pre-Islamic, post-Islamic, and contemporary periods and is well-known for its holdings of Quranic manuscripts, miniatures, and illustrated books on a variety of subjects, as well as glasswork, glazed pottery, textiles, coins, and carpets.

The Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art

Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.

Smithsonian Museum: Freer Gallery

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are the Smithsonian’s oldest museums dedicated to the fine arts and, collectively, hold one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the United States. Founded with the private collection of railroad-car manufacturer and self-taught connoisseur Charles Lang Freer in 1923, the Freer Gallery's collection of Persian works is most notable for its ceramics and illuminated manuscripts dating from the 9th through the 13th centuries. Interestingly, one of Mr. Freer’s stipulations in bequeathing his art collection to the nation was that only items from his private collection would be shown at the gallery. As a result, the Freer does not borrow or lend objects. Still, with over 26,000 objects in house, it is able to stage world-class exhibitions and remain a primary destination for the study of Islamic Art. The museum is free, and also houses an impressive collection of paintings and period rooms by the American artist James McNeil Whistler.

Calligraphy Page from a 15th Century Persian Manuscript, Iran. Permanent Collection of LACMA.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is unique among American arts institutions in that it regularly exhibits Iranian art from the 4th millennium B.C. up to the present. The museum holds approximately 1,700 works of Islamic art, with 150 examples on view at any one time. The collection includes ceramics, metalwork, glass, carved wood and stone, manuscript illustration, and calligraphy. The museum is known for its collection of glazed pottery and tiles from Iran and its glass collection from the late 7th to the mid-13th century.

Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art in the capital’s historic district, displays an exceptional collection of rare artifacts in metal, ceramic, glass, crystal, and textile. It is especially well known for its strong holdings of Islamic woodwork. With over 100,000 objects in its permanent collection, of which around 4,500 are on view, there is plenty to discover through the museum’s 25 historic halls, constructed at the end of the 19th century and recently restored during an 8-year renovation. Notable works include rare Quranic manuscripts with calligraphy in silver ink.

Interior Courtyard of the British Museum, London

The British Museum

Founded by royal decree in 1753, the British Museum has one of the most encyclopedic and far-reaching collections in the world. No surprise then, that its Persian and Islamic art collections are some of the best on offer to museum audiences. The Rahim Irvani Gallery displays thousands of objects dating from 3000 B.C. through 651 A.D., most notably those from the 6th Century rule of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. The Cyrus Cylinder – considered to be the world’s first charter on human rights - and the Oxus Treasure – the largest ancient hoard of Persian gold artifacts - are testaments to the historic period, while monumental plaster casts of sculptures from the ancient site of Persepolis offer further contextualization, transporting visitors to ancient Persia.

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