Not so shy, however, that the American pop artist agrees to paint the portrait of Pahlavi, formerly nicknamed the “Jackie Kennedy of the Middle East”. In the summer of 1976, Warhol arrived with his manager, Fred Hughes, at what was then the empress’s home, the Niavaran Palace in Tehran, to take a Polaroid of her, dressed in a simple cream blouse, which he used as the source for a series of screen-printed portraits. “Northern Tehran reminded me of Beverly Hills,” recalls a member of the artist’s entourage, Bob Colacello, who had stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel, where, apparently, Warhol liked to order caviar from room service. .
A few years later, Warhol was asked to do another portrait of the Empress’s husband, but this time he was forced to work from an official photograph. Yet just a year after that, the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown and the Shah fled to Egypt – where he died, in 1980 – with his wife and family. The former empress – who now, 80, lives between Maryland, US, and an elegant apartment overlooking the Seine in Paris – left behind Warhol’s portraits, along with the rest of the nearly 300 works of Western and Iranian modern art that she had amassed in the 1970s, financed, with her husband’s blessing, by the country’s oil wealth.
Today, this little-seen collection – which survives, almost intact, in the vaults of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which Pahlavi inaugurated on his birthday in 1977, in the presence of Nelson Rockefeller – contains masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mark Rothko. According to some estimates, he is now worth up to $3bn (£2.35bn).