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Kuwaiti Art Treasures Beyond Saddam's Grasp

WHEN Iraq seized Kuwait in August, the most precious of the treasures in its Museum of Islamic Art were beyond Iraq's grasp. None may be more symbolic than a gold bird-of-prey paved with rubies - even a ruby beak, from which hangs an outsized pearl matched by three others on its tail feathers. The bird of such sinister beauty was roosting in Russia at the time of the Kuwait invasion, one of 114 treasures then on display at the Hermitage in Leningard. This 18th-century gold pendant from India and all the other treasures of the touring exhibition ``Islamic Art and Patronage: Selections from Kuwait'' were rescued through diplomatic intervention - there was a freeze on Kuwaiti assets - and brought to the United States. They are on view through Feb. 17 at the Walters Art Gallery here.

The items in this show were culled from the 7,000-piece private collection of Sheikha Hussah al-Salem al-Sabah, daughter of the former emir of Kuwait and her husband, Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, members of the royal family of Kuwait. They were on loan to the Kuwait National Museum.

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Now this Islamic art from the exhibition and six other pieces on tour with another collection may be all that's left from the Kuswait National Museum, which reportedly was pillaged by Iraq and its art removed.

That the Walters Gallery's obtained the exhibition at a time of such international crisis was no fluke. Ellen Reeder, the curator of ancient art at the Walters who had been involved in the show from the start, says the gallery established a friendship several years ago with the Al-Sabahs, when the Kuwaiti family lent the Walters items from their collection for a jewelry exhibition.

Three years ago, when Kuwaiti tankers were reflagged at a time of international crisis, Ms. Reeder says the gallery appproached the al-Sabahs about a possible exhibition ``because they had a great Islamic collection that could help to communicate with the American people about Islamic civilization.''

Reeder traveled to Kuwait and talked about the upcoming show with Sheikha al-Sabah, who decided to lend the show to the Hermitage in Leningrad before its upcoming US tour.

In exchange, precious Islamic objects from the Hermitage were lent to the Kuwait museum, and this facilitated the immediate transfer of the al-Sabah exhibition during the crisis, from Leningrad to the US, as scheduled. ``Ironically, the exhibition always stayed on schedule....''

Knowing that the majority of the collection may not ever be seen again makes this exhibition even more precious. It is like looking at the relics of some ancient civilization recently unearthed, saved - as were the bowls and dishes of Pompeii - from the lava. Many of these treasures are not actually Kuwaiti but were collected by the Kuwaiti royal family from Islamic sources as far flung as Syria, Egypt, Iran, and even Sicily. And they span l0 centuries, from the eighth through the 18th, of the major Islamic areas from India to Spain.

We never know even the names of the individual workmen, but some have put the personal stamp of their talent clearly on their work, as in the wonderful prancing gazelles decorating the dark wood panel of an llth century Egyptian design. Or the beauty of the rectangular white marble revetment from 17th-18th century India. It is inlaid with lapis lazuli, malachite, jaspar, agate and other stones to form a design of cypress trees, flowers, and birds.

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Reeder says, ``Even without the invasion of Kuwait, this exhibition would still be an important one, an exhibition of world-class Islamic works of art. These works of art can hold their own with the finest collections in the world.''

The curator of this show was Esin Atil, historian of Islamic art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries.

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