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Making billions on Islamic art

By Matthew Swibel, Forbes
March 21, 2005 10:16 IST
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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, DC 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.

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Matthew Swibel, Forbes

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