ART MARKET : How priceless treasures survived the Gulf war

It is little short of a miracle that most of a Kuwaiti sheikh's unique collection of Islamic art escaped the Iraqi invasion. A selection of his ceramics, calligraphy and jewels is now on show in Cambridge
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The Independent Culture
SHEIKH Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the 47-year-old son of the Kuwaiti foreign minister, is one of the most elusive of the world's great art collectors. He is most often found in India, Syria or Morocco, dressed in local costume searching for treasures in the bazaar.

It was his wife, Sheikha Hussah, daughter of the former Emir of Kuwait, who earlier this month inaugurated the exhibition of their collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, "Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait". Together the couple established the first Islamic art museum in Kuwait in 1983. Among the guests Sheikha Hussah welcomed in her opening speech was "the man who showed Sheikh Nasser his first Islamic object": Oliver Hoare, an elusive charmer best known to the British public as a friend of Princess Diana, but also one of the world's leading dealers in Islamic art.

The Sheikh and his wife are cousins. Sheikh Nasser, schooled in Jerusalem but with no academic leanings, is the passionate collector of the two, while his gentle and dignified wife, who has a degree in English literature, concentrates on the cataloguing and study of the collection and acts as the director of their museum. They have six children, one grandchild, and homes in Syria, Morocco and elsewhere. Sheikh Nasser loves remaking old houses.

The financial backing for these activities is derived from his own business flair rather than family inheritance. He built up a vast fishing fleet, Gulf Fisheries, and invested the profits in real estate as prices soared during the oil boom. According to Oliver Hoare, he applied the same business sense to his collection, which was mostly acquired before prices went mad in the 1980s, from auctions in London and Paris and from dealers such as Mr Hoare himself.

In 1976 Sheikh Nasser paid Fr400,000 (then about £40,000) at the Parisian auction house the Htel Drouot for a 12th-century, silver inlaid, brass candlestick and in 1982 he bought a Persian vase-patterned carpet for £99,000 in a London auction. Through Mr Hoare, he acquired most of the superb collection of Islamic art formed at the turn of the century by the Comtesse de Behague, the connoisseur friend of Marcel Proust, at undisclosed prices.

It is little short of a miracle that his collection survived the Gulf war with so few losses. From 1983 to 1990 it filled one third of the Kuwaiti National Museum; there were also state collections of ethnographic and archaeological material in the museum, but all the Islamic art belonged to Sheikh Nasser and his wife. Only days before the Iraqis invaded, on 2 August 1990, the selection of pieces now on show in Cambridge left Kuwait for St Petersburg for a pre-arranged exhibition at the Hermitage Museum. They have been circling the globe ever since, visiting one museum after another, waiting for the war-damaged Kuwait museum to be rebuilt.

The Iraqis showed uncharacteristic respect for the collections they found in Kuwait after the invasion, sending their own curators to pack up the contents of the National Museum for removal to Baghdad. They travelled by open truck and the jolting caused considerable damage. Only 58 pieces from the al-Sabah collection went missing, most of which had been in store rather than on display; the rest was returned after the war under the auspices of the United Nations.

Shortly before the Iraqi soldiers left Kuwait, however, they set fire to the museum, leaving it a gutted shell. A pair of 14th-century Moroccan carved doors which was too large for the museum curators to remove to Baghdad went up in smoke.

The Cambridge exhibition can give only a hint of the riches of Sheikh Nasser's accumulation of Islamic art. It includes 126 pieces from the 1,000 selected for display when the Kuwait museum opened in 1983 and they, in turn, were selected from 20,000 pieces in his possession - including some 13,000 coins. The entire coin collection was saved from the Iraqis by one of the Sheikh's managers, who took them home the day after the invasion. He hid them by stacking them against a wall and building a false breeze-block wall in front.

Nevertheless, the Cambridge show demonstrates what Islamic art is all about. A comparative latecomer among world religions, Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammed (c 571-632 AD) and spread rapidly across the Middle East, covering within a few centuries territory running from Spain in the west to the borders of China in the east. Muslim artists adopted and adapted the decorative styles of this vast terrain, notably leaning on Greek, Roman, Sassanian and Byzantine precedents.

The applied arts are the principal glories of this culture, using decorative motifs based on calligraphy, plant and animal forms, geometric patterns and curling arabesques, often densely combined. There is superb wood carving at the Fitz-william and metalwork, mostly brass inlaid with silver and other metals. The pottery has elegant blue and white or lustre decoration. (Lustre wares, so beloved of the Victorians, were developed in Iraq in the ninth century.) Other exhibits include glassware, carved ivories, carpets, textiles, as well as jewels and jewel-encrusted daggers.

There is relatively little painting or sculpture. Islamic painting is broadly limited to the illustration of manuscripts, which reached a high point at the Muslim courts of Persia and Mogul India in the 16th century. It is for their calligraphy that the faithful value these wonderful documents. Calligraphy, since it was developed to record the word of God in the Koran, is the most highly regarded Islamic art form.

Jewels, however, were Sheikh Nasser's first love. He began collecting them well before he conceived the idea of building an Islamic collection. And they remain his principal collecting interest today as he attempts to make good the depredations of Iraqi looters.

Most of the collection in his seaside home, just outside Kuwait city, was removed and hidden by an employee in the early hours of the invasion, but before he could return for the rest, looters arrived and opened the strong-room with a blow- lamp. None of the pieces they took - including great rarities such as red diamonds - has been seen since.

Among the 58 assorted pieces missing from the collection housed in the museum, the principal disaster was the disappearance of three vast emeralds carved around 1600 in Mogul India, each worth several million pounds. They are, or were, among the finest emeralds in the world - possibly the finest. Mined in Colombia shortly after the Spanish conquest, they found their way directly to the court of the Mogul emperor. The largest, weighing 234 carats and measuring 5.7cm across, was carved with waving branches of the ashoka tree, the second with a floral pattern and the third with a Koranic inscription.

Nothing is recorded about where the emeralds were between 1600 and 1970. It seems probable that they slipped surreptitiously out of one of the great collections of the Indian maharajahs after 1948, when their export was banned by the Indian government at independence. Hyder-abad's jewels, a selection of which has recently been bought by the Indian government after a long-running court case, are particularly famous.

The curator of the al-Sabah museum, Manuel Keene, an American, is also passionately interested in jewels and makes them himself. He used to have a workshop in the compound of Sheikh Nasser's seaside home. "The Iraqis took the gold but just threw out the silver and stones in the garden," he told me.

Keene spent the war hidden in the home of a Lebanese couple, Usama and Sue Kaoukji. They could have been executed for harbouring a westerner had Keene been discovered. But a forged driving licence identifying him as a Cypriot passed muster when the Iraqis searched the house.

Keene and Mrs Kaoukji were the first to see the al-Sabahs' home after the occupying Iraqi troops had left; the floors were covered with mud and feathers - every mattress and pillow had been ripped open to see if anything was hidden inside.

The mark on the marble floor where a dead cat lay will not wash off. The walls were covered in graffiti referring to "Hussah's house": an insult to his wife was expected to cause Sheikh Nasser more pain than an insult to himself. !