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The First Real Sampling Of The DMA’s Trove of Islamic Masterworks 11
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Manuscript, “The Shahnama of Firdawsi,” Iran, 1539, work on paper. The Keir Collection.

Last year, the Dallas Museum of Art was loaned one of the world’s largest private collections of Islamic masterpieces. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, tomorrow, the DMA opens ‘Spirt and Matter.’ The show is just a tiny sampling of the collection’s eighteen-hundred items.

To Richard de Unger, the 50 artworks on display at the DMA, are old friends he grew up with. His Hungarian-born father, Edward de Unger, bought them and housed them in the Keir. That was what the family’s London home was called – hence the name, the Keir Collection.

“I think that was the greatest privilege I had,” Richard de Unger says. “Looking back, we could lift up a ceramic, turn it over, to look at the design, hold it up to the light. And by getting the feel, one learned a whole new dimension.” Even today, he says, he won’t buy an artwork online — he needs to touch it, to heft it.

The Keir Collection had been at the Pergamon Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin on an extended loan. When the DMA got the trove for the next 15 years, the deal garnered international attention. Major Islamic art in Texas? But DMA director Max Anderson notes Texas has the largest number of Muslims of any state in America. It’s the largest non-Christian denomination in the state. North Texas itself has 20 mosques.


Pendant, Egypt, 11th century. The Keir Collection.

Then there’s the quality of the artworks. Among historians, the Keir’s an almost fabled collection. Its elaborate carpets, intricate metalware and magnificently illustrated books have rarely been exhibited. We’ve already seen one of the collection’s real prizes: the rock crystal ewer from 10th century Egypt. “Spirit and Matter” at the DMA is the other works’ first showing in North America, ever. The 5o items span nine centuries, and they come from Spain, across the Middle East and all the way over to South Asia. They seem even more precious  and rare these days, given ISIS’ ongoing destruction of ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria –events de Unger feels personally.

“Anger is the first emotion I feel,” he says. “Sorrow is the second. This is all avoidable and should not have happened.”

De Unger says some 500 artworks from the Keir Collection have already been shipped to Dallas. So we can expect a series of future exhibitions of Islamic masterworks at the DMA.