Oliver Hoare was arguably the most influential dealer in the Islamic art world, and one who broke the mould. An exotic character with legendary levels of wit, charm and knowledge, he also had an insatiable thirst for fun and adventure and a magical spirit which dared to pursue the improbable. This was perhaps most apparent with his achievement of one of the most unlikely deals of the 20th century: negotiating with the rulers of Iran the exchange of the 16th century ‘Houghton Shahnameh’ for a painting by Willem de Kooning.
Oliver Hoare’s exotic streak is perhaps unsurprising: he was born in 1945 to a Russian mother and an English father who had met in Istanbul. After being sent to Eton, he studied at the Sorbonne’s Institut d’Art et d’Archaeologie, playing guitar in the city’s cafés at night and meeting many of the colourful characters living in 1960s Paris. He had been fascinated with Persia since childhood, his father having gifted him some ancient coins, and he would travel there from France every summer holiday of his university years, a journey which took over a week by bus and train.
After graduating from the Sorbonne, he joined Christie’s in 1967 where he was initially charged with overseeing Russian art. After spotting some carpets left lying in the warehouse corridors, remnants of some of the great European collection sales, he recognised them as Persian and was tasked with their cataloguing and sale, the success of which led to the launch of the very first Islamic Art department at a major auction house. It was during this period that he shared a flat with his great friend Bruce Chatwin whom Hoare often credited with having taught him his craft.
He left Christie’s in 1975 to establish his own business and opened the Ahuan gallery in Pimlico in partnership with David Sulzberger. As a private dealer, he worked at some time or another with most of the major Islamic art collectors and museums throughout the Middle East, as well as in Europe, the US and Japan. As Dr. Kjeld von Folsach, Director of the David Collection in Copenhagen, recently said, ‘I can hardly think of any important collection - public as well as private - where he hasn’t been involved at some point, and in some cases he has been the major formative force.’ In the 1970s and 1980s, he was instrumental in building the collection of Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah for the Kuwait National Museum, including the acquisition of Islamic art from the legendary collection of Comtesse de Behague. He advised the Nuhad Es-Said Collection in Beirut, one of the finest groups of Islamic metalwork in private hands, and in the 1990s, started working as an advisor to Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar, the greatest collector of his time, as they worked for over a decade building museum collections for Qatar. This project came to a halt when the sheikh was placed under house arrest in 2005 amidst accusations of financial misapropriation; the charges were later dismissed, but not before Hoare was caught in the confusion.
Perhaps his crowning achievement took place when Hoare negotiated an exchange between the government of Iran and the Houghton Family Trust whereby Iran recovered the most significant part of the ‘Houghton Shahnameh’, the most important illustrated manuscript ever created in Persia, in exchange for Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman III which was in storage in the Tehran Contemporary Art Museum. The negotiations were full of risk and had taken over three years when the deal finally concluded in dramatic fashion in July 1994. Hoare travelled with the Shahnameh from London to Paris where it was inspected by Iranian art experts before flying on to Vienna airport. The following day, an Iranian government plane landed and off-loaded the de Kooning, finalizing the exchange on the tarmac before returning to Tehran with the Shahnameh. Hoare had just completed writing his own account of the exchange at the time of his death.
In 2012, Hoare hosted a small exhibition of items from his personal cabinet of curiosities at Jean-Claude Ciancimino’s gallery in Pimlico. Encouraged by the reaction, he returned in 2015 with a much larger edition at 33 Fitzroy Square, former home of the Omega workshops. Entitled Every Object Tells a Story, it was the first time in decades that he had held a major exhibition and it included an eclectic array of objects ranging from antiquities to dodo bones and erotic scrimshaw. It was accompanied by a catalogue in which he practiced his love of storytelling with entertaining and often semi-biographical notes, one of which was a moving homage to his former friend and client, the late Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani of Qatar, in which he gave the ‘other account’ of the accusations which had seen him placed under house arrest. The exhibition welcomed thousands of visitors and the catalogue was chosen as one of the best art books of that year by the Evening Standard. According to Dr. Kjeld von Folsach “He has handled myriads of highly important and valuable objects, but a peep into the gallery would also open the visitor’s eyes for the unexpected, unusual, interesting and overseen. This unusual eye was supported by an unusual mind. He knew his field very well but was also extremely open-minded and unorthodox. An evening spent in Oliver’s company was never boring but highly enjoyable and inspiring. Luckily for me I had many of them over the years, and as the objects he sold to our museum, these evenings can be compared to pearls on a string.”
Another extraordinary exhibition took place in 2017, this time at Sir John Lavery’s old studio in Cromwell Place where his choice of objects ranged from unicorn horns to Bactrian treasures. It gave him a chance to tell stories, and gave visitors another opportunity to experience Oliver Hoare, a private dealer with a public persona, and an unquenchable thirst for new adventures.
Oliver Hoare, art dealer and Islamic art specialist, died on Thursday 23 August 2018 at home, aged 73.
Written by Matthew Paton for the October 2018 edition of The Art Newspaper.