Nasser D. Khalili was born to collect. As the son and grandson of dealers in carpets, lacquerware and other art in Isfahan, one of the greatest cities of ancient Persia and now Iran's second city, Khalili himself maintains that from roughly age 14 he dreamed of amassing one of the greatest art collections in the world. Now, as a 48-year-old art-world prodigy, he has done it.
The Khalili Collection is unique. Its embrace of virtually every known area of craftsmanship ever pursued in Islamic lands is unprecedented: illuminated copies of the Qur'an, rare manuscripts and miniatures, papyri, calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, talismans and seals, carpets and textiles, jewelry, coins, glass, gem-encrusted daggers and medieval armor, astrolabes, maps, padlocks, stirrups and even more now pack vaults and warehouses around the world, awaiting a permanent home. In most areas, the Khalili Collection is now regarded as not only the most extensive but also simply the finest in the world. The illuminated copies of the Qur'an number more than 500, compared to the British Library's modest 50, and they comprise the largest group of fine Qur'anic manuscripts in private hands anywhere in the world. The collection that has grown daily since the early 1970's now lists more than 20,000 items valued at an estimated $1.6 billion.
But all this is more than just a private indulgence. Nasser Khalili's is already becoming one of the best-cataloged collections in the world, and Khalili's ultimate vision is that it will further spur the world's appreciation of the artistic contributions of Islamic cultures. To this end, Khalili insists that in his collecting he has not been "mesmerized by objects made for kings and queens," and has attended also to "the products of craftsmen made for everyday life."
Professor Michael Rogers, honorary curator of the Khalili Collection, says Khalili's achievement has been "to buy in areas in which there's been little interest to buy.... He's not merely interested in the beautiful or the exquisite. He's also interested in the curious."
As a result, Rogers says, the collection "has shed a completely new light on practically every aspect of Islamic art." For the first time, "it'll be possible to see the whole history of the cultures of Islam from the beginnings right up to the 19th century." The Khalili Collection, he adds, is "far more systematic and historical" in approach than the collections of either the Victoria and Albert Museum or the British Museum.
Nasser Khalili himself is soft-spoken and confident, in the manner of one whose seemingly impossible success has come as no grand surprise to himself. At his north London research center, sitting straight-backed, he tells a little of the story of his passion—critics would say obsession—while next to him, an expert works meticulously on the restoration of a 10th-century rose-colored cameo-glass bowl.
"I grew up in Iran," he begins gently, "a country of Islamic culture which played a major role in the development of Islamic art. My father loved Islamic art, so I was brought up to appreciate it. Dealing in art and collecting is our family tradition; it was only natural that I should follow in my father's and grandfather's footsteps. I was drawn at first to Islamic lacquer. I was amazed by the quality of the painting and the absolute mastery that the craft required."
In 1967, Khalili left Tehran bound for New York. Although he earned a bachelor's degree in computer sciences, by the early 1970's he was ready to begin building on the foundations of his father's and grandfather's trade.
For any serious collector of Islamic art, the world's best marketplace is not in the Middle East: It is in London. During the approximately four-century life of the British Empire, a great many Islamic antiques made their way—legitimately and illegitimately—to England.
The thriving Islamic art market of the 1970's captivated Khalili. On trips from Iran, he began to frequent Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips, the three leading auction houses. His initial purchases were narrowly focused: From the first, he bought Persian lacquerware, his first love in Islamic art, which, until the 1980's, was also regarded as undervalued. In 1978, when prices in much of the Islamic art market fell and set off a minor panic, Khalili kept on buying. This raised a few eyebrows, and earned the neophyte a measure of respect from London's established old-timers.
It was also in 1978 that Khalili, seeking to buy a gift, walked into a jeweler's shop on Bond Street. The woman across the counter was Marion Easton; the two married later that year.
In 1980, the Khalilis moved to London for good, and it was then that Khalili began to buy on an unprecedented scale. Throughout the early 1980's, he bought and sold out of a gallery in London's fashionable Mayfair.
Many art dealers maintain that Khalili achieved the status and credibility of a serious collector upon his purchase of the fabled manuscript of Jami' al-Tawarikh, the "universal history" of Rashid al-Din, produced in Tabriz in 1314. Full of illustrations from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, it is widely considered the finest medieval manuscript ever produced in East or West. It is also apparently the most expensive ever sold: How much Khalili paid for it has remained undisclosed, but recent appraisals peg its value at a stratospheric $18 million.
It was Khalili's low-profile, unassuming manner that enabled him to purchase such an enormous number of objects without attracting commensurate public attention. But by the mid-1980's, however, he was buying such sensational quantities, at such sensational prices, that the art world began to seethe with rumors. Khalili missed no opportunity, and scooped up many of the finest pieces in every gallery and every auction house. He no longer focused entirely on Islamic art, either: He was well on his way to creating his most important secondary collection, that of Meiji-period Japanese art. The most discussed—and least answerable—question of all was, where did Khalili get his money?
On this point he has always remained silent, maintaining that it is his private affair. Khalili continued buying—and buying—and replied to the press in only the most general of terms: His wealth, he said, was the result of successful business dealings in sugar and coffee, on the options market, in real estate in the British Isles and abroad, and, of course, in works of art.
The announcement that Khalili was in fact purchasing for the Nour Foundation (the name means "light"), owned by the Khalili family trust, came as a surprise to many in the trade who had assumed all along that Khalili was actually buying for another collector. Khalili had, after all, written a catalog of the Islamic art collection belonging to the Sultan of Brunei. But the Nour Foundation, Khalili says, "was formed many years ago by my father... to promote an understanding and appreciation of the great heritage of Islamic art."
In the mid-1980's, Khalili began work on a doctoral dissertation at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In 1988, he presented his research on 18th-and 19th-century Persian lacquerware, his enduring love in Islamic art. Like almost no other student before him, Khalili was able to study largely within his own collection.
Not long afterward, Khalili underwrote a $1 million chair of Islamic art at SOAS and a research fellowship in Islamic art at the University of Oxford. The University of London named him an honorary fellow and appointed him to its governing body. Khalili found a donor to give $16 million for a new Islamic Center at the University of London which, when completed, will complement Khalili's endowed professorship by mounting exhibitions of Islamic art and providing a center for research.
Today, Khalili is buying less and preparing more for the research and display dimensions of his collection. On this, he is straightforward: "The plan has always been first to conserve and document the collection in its entirety, publish it, and then to house it in a museum."
Almost every item in the vast collection is to be cataloged on a scale befitting the collection's value. A single, overall catalog of the greatest masterpieces is to be authored by Rogers, currently the Nasser D. Khalili Professor of Islamic Art at SOAS. But this volume is only a prelude, as it were, to the main fugue.
A full series of 30 catalogs is in production, huge tomes that will be presented each as a self-contained, comprehensive study. Directed not only to the academic and the collector but also to lay people, the catalogs will include essays on particular themes in Islamic art. To assist him in organizing, drafting, and producing the catalogs, Khalili hired the world's leading authorities in each field of study. More than 30 specialists were contracted along with a substantial editorial team, an in-house illustrator, a photographer and one of the world's most distinguished book designers, Misha Anikst.
In selecting scholars, Khalili comments, "I am also keen on introducing new blood into the system. Some of the young scholars, many of whose names have not been familiar to most, have actually made valuable contributions to the catalogs."
The catalogs, he says, will combine "scholarship with visual splendor." Each will be produced in a large format on acid-free paper. All objects will be reproduced in color, with technical drawings included to reveal delicate details so characteristic of Islamic art. "We are not cutting any corners," says Khalili. "We are aiming at the highest standards." He adds that the books, to be published by the Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions, will cost far more to produce than he expects to recover through sales. Such subsidization, he adds, will give them the wider readership they deserve.
Six volumes have been published to date, of which two have won top printing awards.
Dr. Julian Raby, general editor of the catalogs and lecturer in Islamic art at the Oriental Institute at Oxford, was taken by surprise by the scale of the publishing task. "When I began," he says, "I didn't realize what I was taking on. I knew it was big, but didn't really have a sense of just how big. Indeed, I think there are only a handful of people working on the collection who do."
Working closely with Khalili and designer Anikst, Raby has encouraged authors to highlight and emphasize what they, as individual art historians, are excited about in the collection. This spotlight approach, focusing on an object, a group of objects, or a particular issue, has resulted in a series of essays intended as a contribution to the scholarship of the subject. Since some of the catalogs consider overlapping areas of the collection, certain items will be studied from one or more viewpoints.
"Where the Khalili Collection differs," Raby says, "is that it's so large that it can be reconfigured in different ways. It's not telling a simple story. It has not got one simple vision. Two traditions determine the make-up of most private collections today. One is that of the connoisseur, with a few select items chosen for their aesthetic merit. The other is the philatelic approach, where the emphasis of the collector is on assembling complete series of objects. The Khalili Collection is remarkable in that it belongs, as it were, to the heroic age of collecting, for it combines both these traditions within an overall scheme of providing a synoptic vision of the arts of the entire Islamic world.
"What I particularly enjoy about the collection," he says, "are some of the more quirky, whimsical sequences. I said to one of the authors who is writing the Science, Tools and Magic volume, 'We have some padlocks you might like to put into this part of the collection.' He said, 'How many?' I said, '347!' Since then, it's grown by another 600!"
In addition to the catalog series, the Nour Foundation is to publish a series of books focusing on specific areas of Islamic art. Entitled Studies in the Khalili Collection, this second series will be aimed at students and academics. The first volume in the series, a supplemental study of 36 papyri titled Arabic Papyri, was published in 1992. Along with its main volume, Letters, Bills and Records: Arabic Papyri From Egypt, the book offers an unprecedented look at writing in the first three centuries of Islam.
Science, Tools and Magic will cover astrology, astronomy, medicine and magic. Included will be the collection's large number of astrolabes, globes, quadrants, scientific manuscripts and geomantic devices. In addition, it will include practical items like padlocks, scissors, tweezers, spoons and weights and balances.
Since the written word is a central feature of Islam, calligraphy is of particular importance. Author Dr. Nabil Safwat says the volume on calligraphy "has been written from the calligrapher's point of view." It focuses on the collection's vast cache of exceptional calligraphic pieces. And, in a selection of accompanying essays, Dr. Safwat highlights central themes in Islamic calligraphy that until now have been almost unknown to readers of the English language—such as muraqqa' . Muraqqa', from the Arabic root ruq'ah , translates as "patch," or a patchwork of pieces of exemplary calligraphy. Whether a complete volume or a single page, such manuscripts acted as a calligrapher's source books. The collection houses various examples of the finest muraqqa'at ever made; pride of place goes to the so-called "Royal Muraqqa" that combines the work of several grand masters of Islamic calligraphy—Shaykh Hamdullah, Hafiz Osman and Mehmet Rasim—on a single sheet.
In a third series of publications, the Nour Foundation is also producing a selection of unabridged facsimile manuscripts. The first, says general editor Raby, will be a reproduction of the work of the 16th-century Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis, whose 1513 world map included information derived from a map by Christopher Columbus that has never been found (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). Another will provide a facsimile edition of the illustrated jami' al-Tawarikh manuscript, the universal history, which will include detailed studies of the miniatures as well as a translation and critical analysis of the text.
The next step is to find a permanent home for the Khalili Collection itself.
"Collecting," Khalili says, "is a fairly private activity. And it is my belief that, even if someone owns the greatest collection of art in the world, that collection is of no consequence so long as it is hidden from public view.... There is a Persian proverb that is often used to decorate works of art: 'Ultimately, all possessions are God's alone; we are but custodians.'"
As chairman of the Nour Foundation, Lord Young of Graffham negotiated with the British government in the hope of establishing a London museum to house the Khalili Collection. The foundation's offer to lend the 20,000-piece collection for an initial period of 15 years was met, however, with the skepticism that can sometimes greet such largesse. In Britain there was no precedent for such a loan, and the cost of constructing a new museum was deemed too considerable. The offer was rejected.
All that is certain now, Khalili says, is that a museum will be built. "Where" is still a question.
"You will have a museum with more than 20,000 items which have been fully restored, conserved, cataloged, photographed and published even before it has opened its doors. We will be giving Islamic art the credit it deserves, perhaps for the first time on this scale."
And what a scale it will be. The collection's Qur'anic manuscripts stretch from the first century of Islam until the late 1800's. Almost every type and subtype of Umayyad and Abbasid script categories is represented, often in rare complete manuscripts. Among them is the giant Baysunghur copy of the Qur'an, written for Timur Leng (Tamerlane) by the calligrapher 'Umar Aqta. The story goes that, in trying to impress the great Timur, 'Umar produced a copy of the Qur'an so small that it could slip beneath the signet ring of the great ruler. When Timur remained unimpressed, 'Umar went away and produced another copy, this one so huge it had to be wheeled into court on a cart.
The collection also houses the only copy of the Qur'an from 12th-century Valencia known to be in private hands. Other copies of the Qur'an, originating from as far afield as Sicily and India, include one measuring a mere 47 by 37 millimeters (1.85" by 1.45"), thought to have been written in 14th-century Iraq.
As well as numerous astrolabes, the Khalili Collection houses the finest celestial globes in existence. One was crafted by Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Tabari in 1285 and 1286, and inlaid with 1024 silver dots indicating the major stars of various constellations. It is the original of an almost identical globe in the Louvre in Paris.
Khalili's Islamic coins number over 8000, forming one of the most voluminous numismatic collections in private hands. Nearly 10 percent of them are either unique or unpublished, and more than 1200 are gold. Coins appear from across the Islamic world, from Africa to Asia; of particular interest are the earliest Arab gold coins from North Africa, which bear Latin inscriptions. Others include a rare Abbasid dinar struck in the year 750, two more Abbasid dinars issued by Harun al-Rashid in 787 and 788, and a variety of exquisite gold Qajar tomans.
No less diverse is a wide range of figures and figurines. Fashioned to function as door knockers, incense burners, jugs, and other useful objects, they demonstrate that the prohibition of portraying figures in Islam has, historically, often been ignored. Dr. Sabiha Khemir, the author of the volume titled Figures and Figurines: Sculptures of the Islamic Lands, points out that the Qur'an warns explicitly against the worship of idols. One of the most intriguing figures in the collection is that of a kneeling, bearded man thought to portray the Seljuk ruler Tughril Beg at prayer. It was produced in Kashan, Iran, under the Mongols in the 13th century.
The ceramics collection illuminates a thousand years of Islamic pottery. The 2000 items include an unparalleled collection of 12th- and 13th-century Afghan pottery, rare Iznik pieces, early lustre-painted bowls and an extremely rare polychrome painted Persian bowl from the 10th century, incorporating a representation of the Prophet's steed, Buraq.
The more than 1000 pieces of metal-work range from an early Islamic silver ewer in the Sasanian style to a rare 13th-century jazirah casket that once had an unusual combination lock, and an Ottoman silver fountain ladle dated 1577 or 1578. Nahla Nassar, deputy curator of the Khalili Collection and co-author of the volume on Islamic metalwork, says the metalwork collection "emphasizes similarities." So numerous are the examples, she says, that "one can judge how a style has changed and developed" over time and distance.
Islamic weaponry in the collections ranges from the most elegant of daggers to an important group of early stirrups. "The arms and armor in the collection," says Dr. David Alexander, author of the collection's volume The Arts of War, "include items as varied and widely separated as a Crusader sword from the Mamluk arsenal at Alexandria and an 18th-century cannon from the palace of Tipoo Sultan at Mysore." Of historical importance is the sword of the Sudanese warlord 'Ali Dinar, taken after his defeat and death in 1916. Alexander's volume includes discussions of the belt in Islamic culture, the use of talismanic shirts, the ceremonial drum, and the advent of gunpowder.
In complete contrast to the weaponry is the enchanting assembly of Islamic glassware. Through the 300 pre-Islamic and Islamic pieces, one can trace the entire story of glass-making. The collection's cut glass and cameo vessels dating to the 10th and 11th centuries are unequalled. With walls as thin as a tenth of a millimeter (0.004"), it seems miraculous that such pieces have survived the centuries at all.
Inspired as he was in childhood by Persian lacquerware, Khalili now holds the largest collection of lacquer objects in the world: more than 500 penboxes, bookbindings, mirror cases and caskets.
It will take a substantial museum to do justice to the collection. Khalili wants that museum—regardless of the city in which it is built—to be a dynamic place, not just an exhibition hall of echoing footsteps.
"Creating a fossilized museum is the last thing on my mind," says Khalili. "There are millions of Muslims in Europe. A center for Islamic art will work on different levels. It will show non-Muslim Europeans that their Muslim fellow-citizens are heirs to a great tradition that deserves their respect. It will stop them thinking of Muslims only in terms of fundamentalists, terrorists and hostage-takers. It will also give European Muslims access to their own culture, and make them even more proud of it.
"People from 46 Muslim countries have different traditions, and speak different languages. What unites them is their religion and the artistic heritage which was shaped by that religion," he continues. "It is true that until recently most scholars in the field were non-Muslims, but that's changing dramatically as Islamic countries wake up to the importance of their artistic heritage.
"The moment has come for the 'people of the book'—Jews, Christians and Muslims—to speak openly to one another and to see clearly the close cultural, social, spiritual and intellectual ties that have existed among them for centuries."
Tahir Shah, lecturer and author of The Middle East Bedside Book and four other volumes, is the son of the prolific author Idries Shah.