A Collector's Fortune: Islamic Art Masterpieces of the Keir Collection now at the DMA

The Keir Collection of Islamic Art Gallery, now in the Dallas Museum of Art, is the largest public presentation in the history of one of the world's most important private collections of Islamic Art. The gallery highlights particular strengths within the collection, which encompasses one of the most important holdings of luster pottery and rock crystals in the world including the celebrated rock crystal ewer, one of only seven in the world of its caliber and the only one of its type in the United States. The gallery space displays a series of rare manuscripts and painted miniatures of exquisite beauty, including a 16th-century Indian Khamsa of Nizami manuscript, and pages from the 1330 Shahnama known as “The Demotte Shahnama.”

The Keir Collection came to the DMA on a long-term loan agreement with the trustees of the Keir Collection that was finalized in 2014, transforming the Museum into the third largest repository of Islamic art in the United States. The Collection is on show from April 18, 2017 to April 26, 2020. The Keir Collection comprises works from nearly all periods and artistic styles from the core Islamic countries around the Mediterranean, from Iran and Central Asia. Brocades and carpets, early medieval bronzes, exquisite rock crystal objects, priceless calligraphies, miniatures and elaborately adorned bookbindings all feature in the loan. One of its most striking attributes are its ceramics dating from all periods – one good reason alone for the world renown of this private collection. What is also astounding is the story of the person behind the Keir Collection, Edmund de Unger.

Who was Edmund de Unger?

"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 was a rather solitary person and, seeing my interest, he must have been pleased. He took me to museums, and by the age of nine I was quite a good companion to him in the salesrooms. 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."....

Edmund Robert Anthony de Unger (Hungarian: Odon Antal Robert de Unger, b 6 August 1918, Budapest - d 25 January 2011, Ham, Surrey) was a Hungarian-born property developer and art collector. In London he built up the Keir Collection, one of the greatest post-war collections of Islamic art, bequeathed in 2008 to the Pergamon Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. The arrangement for the museum to curate the collection came to an end in July 2012.The collection is now hosted by the Dallas Museum of Art as of May 2014 for a 15-year renewable loan. Edmund de Unger was born in Budapest into a family linked with the art world. His father was a private collector of carpets and another relative was the architect who designed the Hungarian National Museum. After going to London in 1934 to learn English, he studied economics at Kiel Institute for the World Economy, law at the University of Budapest and history at Hertford College, Oxford. Returning to Hungary before the outbreak of World War II, in 1945 he married Eva Spicht, one of 22 Jewish refugees whom he had taken in during the Battle of Budapest. After the war he restored and ran the Astoria Hotel in Budapest, until it was requisitioned by the communist regime in 1948.

In 1949 de Unger, following a series of arrests in Hungary, moved permanently to England, working first as a manservant. After further training, he entered the legal profession as a barrister. He later worked as Crown Counsel in Ghana for the Colonial Office. The period in West Africa permitted visits to Egypt, where he developed an interest in Coptic and Islamic art. On returning to England, de Unger became a property developer, which provided him with the means to build up his post-war art collection, which he named the "Keir Collection", after one of his first homes The Keir on Wimbledon Common in London. In 1965, following the death of his first wife Eva in 1959, he married Elizabeth Allen, with whom he had two sons, Richard and Glen.

The ever-increasing Keir Collection was moved in the late 1960s to his house in Ham, Surrey. The collection, which started in his youth with carpets, gradually grew to include ceramics, in particular rare items of lustreware from Mesopotamia, Persian and Moghul miniatures, medieval and Renaissance enamels, sculptures, and textiles from Italy and France (including the medieval enamels collection of Ernst and Martha Kofler-Truniger). Widely knowledgeable on the area in which he collected, de Unger founded the Islamic Art Circle in 1964 and lectured frequently on his expertise all over the world. One big mentor of him was Werner Abegg the king of textiles which I address later...