From Saddam's risqué oil paintings to Teodorin's King of Pop trove, the quirky collections of the world's most notorious leaders.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. federal agents moved to seize the $30 million Malibu mansion of Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of Equatorial Guinea’s strongman president this week, which happened to contain a host of luxury goods — not least a $1.1 million collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the King of Pop’s “white crystal covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove” and his MTV Music Awards “moon man” trophy.
Whether it’s tacky erotic art, fast cars, or fancy weapons, autocrats have often displayed something of a penchant for collecting.
Collection: Fantasy art
In one of Saddam’s mansions, U.S. forces uncovered what’s been described as a “1960s-style love nest — a mirrored bedroom, lamps shaped like women, and fantasy-art paintings featuring scantily-clad, bodacious women and buff warriors.”
The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, was withering in his assessment: “They are from the universal cultural gutter. They look spraypainted, in a rampant hyperbolic style where all men are muscular, all women have giant breasts and missiles are metal cocks. These are art for the barely literate, or the barely sentient, dredged from some red-lit back alley of the brain.” Jones described the paintings as evidence of a man “who seems on this evidence to have lived according to aestheticised, eroticised violence for which no one has yet come up with a better word than “fascism”.”
Rowena Morell, the artist behind some of the paintings, was outraged as well, telling the New York Daily News, “I would give anything to get them back. I am so upset that they are there…. I don’t like the idea of them being in that country.
Collection: Trinkets and Porn
“Boys, you’re going to see things here that you probably thought didn’t exist,” a gleeful Egyptian Army captain told a group of Western journalists in 1952 before giving them a tour of the Cairo residence of King Farouk I, Egypt’s last king, who had just fled the country following a military coup. Time‘s correspondent described the palace as giving the “impression that someone had feverishly and indiscriminately crammed possessions into the vast rooms, to ward off loneliness, or perhaps despair.”
The correspondent also described “a huge steel cabinet bulging with roulette wheels, dice, hundreds of decks of playing cards with Esquire-style pin-up girls on the back … a fabulous collection of coins — cartwheel-sized Czarist medals, gold sovereigns and silver dollars … a stamp collection worth millions of dollars … all kinds of instruments, including an antediluvian phonograph and an organ … statuettes of nudes in attitudes conventional as well as unconventional,” and finally a bedroom filled with “a weird mixture of pornography, childishness and sentimentality — mild glamour shots like those advertising Chicago burlesque bars; Kodachrome nudes complete with pocket viewers; trick photographs that could be squeezed to make a fan dancer bump and grind.”
KIM JONG IL
Country: North Korea
Collection: Movies, basketball, cognac
The Dear Leader’s cinephilia is legendary. CNN reported in 2003 that Kim boasts a collection of 20,000 videotapes, and is particularly fond of the James Bond films (though perhaps not 2002’s Dia Another Day, which begins with 007 being tortured in a North Korean prison). When he’s not collecting films, Kim collects filmmakers. He had a South Korean director and actress kidnapped in 1978 to make movies for him, including the famous 1985 Godzilla-knockoff Pulgasari.
Kim is also reportedly mad about basketball and owns a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan ever played for the Bulls. Madeline Albright gave him a ball autographed by the Bulls star during a brief rapprochement in the 1990s.
But Kim’s collecting fetish has been used against him as well. In 2006, the Bush administration put punitive sanctions on North Korea, specifically designed to make it difficult for Kim and his cronies to obtain luxury goods like iPods, plasma TVs, Segway scooters, Rolex watches, Harley Davidsons, Jet skis, and cognac. Kim really likes cognac, at one point spending more than $650,000 per year on Hennessy.
SHAH REZA PAHLAVI
Collection: Luxury cars
Until the 1979 revolution, Iran was Rolls-Royce’s best customer — thanks to the expensive taste of the Shah and his regime. The Shah’s collection of 140 rare and vintage vehicles included a bulletproof 1953 Rolls-Royce Phantom IV, a 1974 Lamborghini Countach given to the crown prince to celebrate him passing his driving test, a 1950s bronze C-300 Chrysler coupe prototype, and a Mercedes 500K coupe, one of only six ever made, that is rumored to have belonged to Adolf Hitler.
Car collectors have long salivated over the fleet, but for now they sit on display in the National Car Museum of Iran.
Collection: Golden guns, Condoleezza Rice memorabilia
There was something oddly appropriate that the fast-living Libyan dictator spent his last moments in a drainage ditch waving a golden pistol. Qaddafi seemed to have something of a thing for gilded weapons. The one he died with was a modified Colt .45, but he had at least four more including an AK-47, and a pistol decorated with diamonds on the handle.
Qaddafi also had a well-documented obsession with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who he called “my darling black African woman.” Rebel forces found an album of photos of Rice in his residence in Tripoli, a discovery the U.S. State Department called “deeply bizarre and deeply creepy.”
According to Rice, when the two met, he showed her a video tribute featuring a photo montage of her and other world leaders accompanied by a song he had commissioned called “Black Flower of the White House.”