March 12, 2005
It's hard to know when art maven and real estate investor Nasser
David Khalili first felt a craving for legitimacy. Could it have
been when his teacher at a Jewish day school in Tehran, Iran ridiculed
and flunked him for aspiring to genius? "I was outspoken,
and I wanted to prove my teacher wrong," Khalili today recalls.
So, to that end, he wrote and published at age 14 a book ranking
233 world geniuses.
Or was it later, after he had purchased from a trusted London
dealer an $86,000 bird-shaped ceramic sculpture from Raqqa, Syria
(circa 1250)? Although the object came with a certificate of authenticity
from Oxford University art historians, Khalili had a different
set of dons reexamine the object, this time using samples taken
from anywhere except its base. The sculpture turned out to be a
fake. Con artists "took the old bottom and attached a new
part on top," he says, eyes squinted.
Or could it have been in 1992, when Khalili's offer to lend his
20,000-piece Islamic art collection to Great Britain prompted critics
to ridicule his taste and disparage his philanthropy? Khalili did
not get what he had hoped for--a separate museum bearing his name,
paid for by British taxpayers. Instead he was dismissed as a front
man for the Sultan of Brunei (whom he has advised on art). Parts
of his collection were deemed ill-gotten "rubbish."
Khalili, 59, learned long ago to channel rejection into resolve.
Besides his Islamic art--the largest private collection known to
exist anywhere in the world--he owns another 7,000 heterogeneous
pieces: a mix of Japanese art from the Meiji period (1868-1912),
Indian and Swedish textiles and Spanish damascened metalwork. Some
say the depth of Khalili's art holdings rivals that of the Getty
or the Gulbenkian. As owner, Khalili (new this year to the Forbes
billionaire list) enjoys unique standing: He is the only billionaire
whose fortune derives predominately from art.
Technically the entire collection is held by a trust, set up
by Khalili's late father, which funds the purchases of art and
also invests in commercial real estate, primarily European. Khalili
himself, however, has effective control over what artworks are
bought and sold.
Born into a Jewish family of art dealers in Iran (Achaemenid,
Parthian, Sasanian and Byzantine antiques were his clan's stock
in trade), Khalili understood the value of cultural artifacts from
age 10, when he traded stamps and banknotes. When he turned to
Persian cast metalwork and Koranic calligraphy as an adult, few
Western collectors competed in this field.
Islamic art lacks pictorials. Nary a nude appears. The empires
and cultures from which it comes rarely appear in history schoolbooks
in the West. Only recently has this genre, a stepchild of Egyptian
antiquities, become widely admired. Last year the Louvre announced
plans for a $60 million glass expansion to house its Islamic collection,
currently displayed in underground corridors. Earlier this year
100 Islamic objects from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London
made a maiden voyage to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
for a temporary exhibition. And the V&A is building a new Islamic
gallery, thanks to an $8 million gift from former Forbes billionaire
Mohammed Jameel of Saudi Arabia.
Little surprise, then, that even allowing for rich sultans and
emirs from the Gulf states, Khalili competed during a good stretch
of the 1970s and 1980s on a field with a scarcity of players. Prices,
reasonable when he started in the 1970s in New York, were brought
still lower by the 1979 Iranian revolution and by a mid-decade
depression in the Turkish art market. Sipping wine today at his
headquarters in London's Mayfair (a red-brick Georgian town house
with stacks of paintings still unwrapped in a library) Khalili
describes what once had been his common practice: "I used
to buy 50 pieces for $100,000. Over the course of the following
year I would keep the five best and sell the rest for $500,000."
Among his best buys: a written history of the world by Rashid
al-Din from the 14th century, commissioned by a Mongolian khan.
Called the Jami' al-Tawarikh, or Compendium of Chronicles, it was
his for $10 million in a 1990 Sotheby's auction. The medieval manuscript
could go for double that price today, says Islamic art gallery
owner Raffi Portakal in Istanbul.
Then there are the 300 Egyptian papyrus documents (accounts,
letters and legal documents), written in Arabic and dating from
the 8th to the early 12th century. Khalili snatched these papyri
early in the 1980s from a Kuwaiti collector, Jasim al-Homaizi,
who had bought them a decade earlier. Since then bids for similar
papyri have risen threefold, says Edward Gibbs of Sotheby's in
London. At his peak Khalili bought around 100 items a day. His
pace has now slowed to at most an occasional daily dozen.
Sent by Ramin Tabib
Who's your Iranian of the day?