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About the Collection

Doris Duke at the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque; 1647–53) in Agra, India, during her honeymoon with James Cromwell, 1935. (Photo:Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.)
Doris Duke at the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque; 1647–53) in Agra, India, during her honeymoon with James Cromwell, 1935. (Photo:Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.)

The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art collection at Shangri La was assembled over a period of nearly 60 years by Doris Duke (1912–93). The first purchases were made in 1935 when Duke was 22, and the last major piece was acquired in 1992, a year before her death. Numbering approximately 2,500 objects, the collection is broad but not encyclopedic in its representation and includes works of art from Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Central Asia, India and parts of Southeast Asia. The later centuries of production (c. 1600–1940) are better represented, and ceramics, metalwork, wood, glass and textiles are favored over the arts of the book and works on paper. The collection ranges from items of the finest artistic quality, including medieval Persian tilework and painted interiors from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Damascus, to ethnographic objects such as leather saddles and a bedouin-style tent, reflecting Duke’s broad and inclusive sense of aesthetics.

Islamic Art in Context. As in most private collections, the hand and eye of the collector are evident throughout Shangri La. Duke’s travels in various parts of the Islamic world informed her understanding of the relationship between art and its architectural contexts—something she strove to recreate in designing her home. Many works are embedded into the buildings themselves, including ceilings and doors, ceramic tile ensembles, marble columns and fireplaces. These built-in elements are complemented by domestic furnishings, including hanging and standing lamps for illumination, embroideries for covering divans, chests for storing belongings and vessels for pouring liquids. Still other elements recreate traditional Islamic architectural elements such as courtyards, arcades, porches and allées. The latter forms are not Islamic architecture per se, but were created by Duke, her architects, and Hawaiian craftsmen, and contribute a degree of three-dimensional context that gives Shangri La its unique character and ambience—qualities that are often absent from museum presentations of Islamic art.

The Evolution of the Collection. Duke’s tastes, needs, and intentions as a collector evolved over time. During the first five years of her efforts, she collected to create a home that evoked the art and architecture of the Middle Eastern and South Asian countries where she had traveled. Many of her early purchases served a functional purpose in the house: tiles for ornamenting bare walls and carpets for covering the floors. During this same period, she also acquired some of her most important pieces, including the thirteenth-century lusterware mihrab (48.327) from Veramin, Iran, the masterpiece of the collection.

Living Room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Living room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

Furnishing Shangri La also led Duke to become a patron, commissioning new work on a grand scale from living artisans in India, Morocco, Iran and Syria. This early period of collecting and patronage was especially influenced by a handful of international advisors and dealers: Ayoub Rabenou and Mary Crane (and by association, Arthur Upham Pope), Hagop Kevorkian, Georges Asfar and Jean Sarkis (of the firm Asfar & Sarkis), René Martin of S.A.L.A.M. René Martin, and Hassan Khan Monif. Notable sales, such as that of William Randolph Hearst’s collection in 1941, also significantly expanded the collection.

With time, Duke became more discerning as a collector, less reliant upon advisors and dealers, and hence more of a player in international auction circles, albeit anonymously. She also developed specific areas of the collection, including Persian tilework, Iranian art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings, Indian art, and metalwork and ceramics in general. Beginning in the late 1950s, Duke undertook several major renovations that reflected her growing confidence and increased Shangri La’s ability to evoke the look and feel of certain Islamic spaces. The allée of the 1930s was fully realized as a microcosm of a Mughal Garden; the once aquatic-themed dining room became her distinct version of an Islamic-inspired tent; and the former billiard room and office became the second of two late-Ottoman Syrian painted interiors.

Doris Duke’s Legacy. Three decades into her efforts, Duke had a clear vision for the future of Shangri La. In 1965, she added the second codicil to her will, calling for the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to own and manage the property and collections and “to promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture.” That mandate is her legacy and commitment to Islamic art.

During the final decade of her collecting, Duke continued to acquire important works of art: a pair of shaped Mughal carpets, a Qajar ceiling painting and ghalian (water pipe, 44.4a–b), a Seljuk lamp stand (54.151a–b), an Iranian mosaic tile panel (48.42), an Ottoman tombak bowl (54.18), Ilkhanid tiles with deer and phoenixes (48.110), and yet another star tile (48.387) from the Imamzada Yahya in Veramin, to which her masterpiece luster mihrab also belonged. These later acquisitions continued longstanding interests and strengthened the collections. 

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