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Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, late 10th-11th century, Fatimid, mounts by Jean-Valentin Morel, Sevres (France), 1854, rock crystal with enameled gold mounts, The Keir Collection of Islamic Art on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art

Why the de Unger Family Decided to Move The Keir Collection From Berlin to Dallas

The first object from the Kier Collection, a trove of Islamic Art that includes nearly 2,000 object and will be on a 15-year renewable loan with the Dallas Museum of Art, was unveiled at the museum this morning. The Rock Crystal Ewer is an exquisitely crafted pouring vesicle that dates back to the courts of Fatimid Egypt in the late 10th century. Carved from a single stone, the object is the work of virtuosic skill, its delicate translucent container as thin as 1 mm in sections. The face of the ewer features an inlaid design, twisting vines which frame the profile of a cheetah, its back arched, eyes peering outwards. Carved from silica mineral quartz, it is one of only seven objects in the world that features a stone this large, and it is the cornerstone of the collection that is coming to Dallas.

The Keir Collection was amassed by the late Hungarian real estate magnet Edmund de Unger. Before passing away in 2011, de Unger penned a long-term loan agreement with the Pergamon Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin to house, conserve, and display his collection. However, earlier this year, the Dallas Museum of Art announced that it had negotiated a similar long-term agreement with the de Unger family that would see the massive Islamic collection move from Berlin to Dallas.

De Unger’s two sons, Richard and Glen de Unger, were present at the DMA this morning to deliver the Rock Crystal Ewer. Speaking about the new loan and the relationship with the Berlin museum, they cited economic pressures throughout Europe as well as the expansion of Dallas’ institutional art culture as reasons for shifting the loan.

“We looked at the possibilities who could actually host it and who had the capabilities,” said Richard de Unger. “And having had negotiations with major institutions, including the Louvre in Europe, Dallas was able to convince us with its dynamic civic atmosphere and achievements that this was fertile ground with which to negotiate.”

Islamic art has never been a strength or a focus of the Dallas museum. It’s holdings are minimal, and the recent Nur exhibition was the first major Islamic art show in the museum’s 111 years. However, when Maxwell Anderson took over directorship of the museum in 2011, he made it clear he wished to expand the museum interest in and access to the Islamic world when he hired world-renowned curator Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, former founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Al Khemir was instrumental in sealing the agreement with the de Unger family, who were already concerned about what financial pressures on the Berlin museums might mean for the fate of their collection.

“The city of Berlin is almost bankrupt,” Richard de Unger said. “That’s had its effects on the collection.”

The arrival of the Keir at the DMA also positions the art works within an interesting political context. Dallas is both the home of former President George W. Bush and one of the fastest growing Islamic populations in the United States.  The de Unger’s see their collection as a way of building a bridge between cultures.

“Islamic art lies at the epicenter between western Europe and China,’ Richard de Unger said. “Both of us are not of the Islamic faith, but so much of what has been said politically has been dominated by a minority, so why not understand the majority?”

But Glen de Unger insisted that politics were not the major incentive for choosing Dallas as the new home of the Keir.

“The primary object was not political, the primary object was the capacity of the museum,” he said. “But it is a nice byproduct, that the Muslim population is the fasting growing population in the U.S., and with the recent difficulties, that it is providing that bridge.”

Housing, conserving, documenting, and producing research around the Keir Collection offers the DMA the opportunity to reposition itself within the museum world as an institution with a serious commitment to Islamic art. That opportunity comes at a financial cost, however both de Ungers said they were not at liberty to discuss just how the collection and the museum will split the expense of housing the Keir.

The Rock Cyrstal Ewer will move to its new semi-permanent home this coming week, in a prominent position in a glass case on a mezzanine landing overlooking the museum’s main concourse.