Art Market: Mysterious gifts from the East: Who is the man who has collected Islam's finest treasures and offered them to Britain as a pounds 1bn bequest? Geraldine Norman finds out

WHEN PEOPLE are terrifically rich, it's usually fairly clear how they got that way. The title 'richest man in England' has been variously awarded to Paul Raymond, David Sainsbury and the Duke of Westminster, all with fortunes estimated at around pounds 1 billion. Everyone knows they made their money from, respectively, sex and property empires, food, and property.

Dr Nasser D Khalili has never featured on anybody's 'richest man' list but must presumably belong there. He emerged into the public arena this autumn by offering to lend the Government an Islamic art collection valued for insurance purposes at pounds 1 billion. He made the offer on the understanding that, if all goes well, the loan will be converted into a gift after 15 years.

It's reasonable to assume that someone who offers to give away pounds 1 billion must be worth at least the same again. Dr Khalili is thus a strong contender for the 'richest man in England' title. But the source of his wealth is a mystery.

Dr Khalili belongs to a family of Jewish Iranian art dealers who left Iran when the Shah fell in 1979. He is now an American citizen. He has lived in Britain since 1980 and recently applied for citizenship; he has an English wife and three sons born in Britain. Khalili's money is tied up in a family trust registered in Liechtenstein and he will only say that it derives from 'dealing in art, commodities and real estate'. When I asked for more details, he explained: 'I am quite a young man. Why should I give away my business secrets to competitors?'

Khalili is planning to publish a catalogue of his collection in 26 volumes and has recruited an extraordinary line-up of the world's leading Islamic scholars to write them. It is so rare for a man of great wealth to dole out money to academics that the scholars have not, apparently, bothered their heads as to its source.

Dr Khalili's wealth has also dazzled his chief promoters, Lord Young of Graffham and Sir Tim Bell - both Tory stalwarts of the Thatcher era. Lord Young, an East Ender who made a fortune in property development, was catapulted into the House of Lords by Mrs Thatcher so that she could have a 'real businessman' in her cabinet. Sir Tim, introduced to Dr Khalili by Lord Young, was managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi and Mrs Thatcher's favourite advertising man. Now the two of them are using their considerable influence to persuade the Government to accept Dr Khalili's offer.

The terms were formally passed to Peter Brooke at the Heritage Ministry on 11 November. They include the requirement for a museum building in central London - to be known as the Nasser D Khalili Museum and run at the taxpayer's expense; and an undertaking that the Government will shoulder insurance costs - which won't come cheap if the collection is really worth pounds 1bn. There is no precedent for such a scheme in Britain, but it is clearly inspired by the nine-and-a-half-year loan of Baron Thyssen's collection to the Spanish government.

Before Dr Khalili announced his intentions in October, it had been assumed in the art trade that he was forming a collection on behalf of a super-rich client. There was much speculation over the client's identity.

The Sultan of Brunei was most frequently mentioned, though a Saudi prince with whom he was known to have business relations was another possibility. The Sultan is the richest man in the world, with a reputed income of pounds 250,000 an hour - derived from the oil and natural gas that bubbles out of the sea around his tiny Malaysian kingdom. Khalili says he advised the Sultan on his art collection; in 1990 he wrote a catalogue of the Islamic art from the Sultan's collection which was on exhibition at the Brunei Museum.

Dr Khalili's success seems to have put some noses out of joint. The Fayed brothers, who helped the Sultan to buy the Dorchester Hotel and went on to buy Harrods, are known to be fiercely anti-Khalili.

Whatever the source of his wealth, the art collection is spectacular. It contains 20,000 items, including 8,000 coins. He has the best group of Korans in the world (with the possible exception of the Topkapi collection in Istanbul), many of them beautifully illuminated. He has 500 Koran manuscripts, compared to the British Library's 60. The Islamic and pre-Islamic Middle Eastern glass is also among the best in the world; nobody can equal his 10th-century cut glass. In every other field - metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, lacquer, coins, seals, textiles - he has large collections which include some masterpieces.

Most items were bought very recently, and fellow dealers have been following his progress with great interest. He began dealing out of New York in the 1970s. 'I used to give him little things to sell when he was a student,' said Mehdi Mahboubian, who was the most important of the group of Jewish Iranian art dealers in Tehran in the 1970s and acted as personal adviser to the Shah and Shahbanu. In 1980, still helped by Mahboubian, Khalili opened a gallery in Mayfair, dealing in Islamic art and antiquities; he gave no impression of great wealth. 'I used to buy little things from him for pounds 3,000- pounds 4,000,' one dealer remembers. 'He clearly needed the money.'

Nabil Saidi of Sotheby's recalls that Khalili began collecting 18th and 19th-century Persian lacquer in the early 1980s. This was apparently the first of his collections and Saidi suggests that it may have sparked the idea of collecting more widely. Lacquer prices had collapsed in 1978, so it was not too expensive. A PhD thesis, based on his collection of Persian lacquer, earned Khalili a doctorate from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies in 1988.

Around 1985 his circumstances appeared to change suddenly. He let other dealers know that he was in the market for the rarest and finest pieces, and began to pay record prices at auction. At the time, he claimed he was buying for the Nour Foundation - but nobody knew what it was. (As recently as 1990 his notepaper was headed 'The Nour Collection of Islamic Arts'; at the bottom, three Swiss lawyers were named as directors and Dr Khalili as 'adviser'.) The scale of his purchases amazed the trade. Two dealers told me independently that he must have spent more than pounds 200m but suggested the insurance valuation of one billion was exaggerated.

There was a small hiccup in the affairs of the Nour collection last year when its curator, David James, was arrested by the Irish police. Formerly a curator at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, with responsibility for the Islamic collection, he had, according to the confession he gave police, been quietly removing pages from manuscripts and selling them at Sotheby's and elsewhere. 'He didn't sell any to me,' Khalili emphasises.

James was replaced as curator of the collection by Professor J R Rogers, formerly keeper of Islamic art at the British Museum, but elevated in 1989 to the Nasser D Khalili Chair of Islamic Art and Archaeology at London University - the endowment of the chair cost Khalili pounds 600,000.

It was only in October that he revealed himself as the true owner of the Nour collection and unveiled the first four volumes of his catalogue priced at pounds 135 each. He estimates that the 26 catalogues, together with supplementary research papers and a series of facsimile editions of his best manuscripts, will cost him between pounds 5m and pounds 7m. The general editor is Dr Julian Raby, a senior lecturer in Islamic art and architecture at Oxford. The authors are some of the world's top Islamic scholars.

IN SEPTEMBER 'leaked' reports began to appear in the press describing in glowing terms the offer that Dr Khalili intended to make to the nation. The PR exercise - presumably including the 'leaks' - was handled by Lowe Bell Communications, run by Sir Tim Bell. By a curious coincidence Lowe Bell also acts for the Sultan of Brunei.

Lord Young is chairman of the Nour Foundation (UK) Ltd. Also on its board is Sir Robert Wade-Gery, a retired diplomat and the current chairman of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. Lord Young has told me that he met Khalili socially in the 1980s through various Jewish charities. Sir Robert met Khalili as an important benefactor of SOAS. Besides spending pounds 600,000 to endow a chair, he had found the School an anonymous benefactor who was prepared to fund the construction of a new Islamic Art Centre to the tune of several million pounds.

Both Lord Young and Sir Robert felt it would be against the national interest to look a billion-pound gift horse in the mouth, though neither understood how Khalili had made his fortune. 'From my knowledge of the person concerned, I am quite sure it comes from legitimate sources,' Lord Young told me last week. Sir Robert explained that he had approached his old friend Tim Renton about the offer of the Khalili collection when Renton was Arts Minister, and understood that he had used Government machinery to check out Khalili's background - with a satisfactory result.

Dr Khalili agreed to meet me at the offices of Lowe Bell Communications. He took me to his astonishing research centre in north London, two commodious two-storey buildings thrown into one. Here, Dr Julian Raby and other scholars are busily preparing the catalogues.

Restorers are working on the collection in the same building. An easy, cheerful and scholarly atmosphere prevails. All the participants are clearly delighted with what they are doing - with the possible exception of Raby himself.

'I'm knackered,' he said. 'I don't know if I'll last much longer.' He is attempting to combine his Oxford lectureship with writing and editing catalogues. He is also managing a new publishing company, Azimuth Press, which he and his wife have set up to handle the Khalili catalogues and other similar publications - if any such should come along.

Khalili was full of passion, philosophy and delight over his project. In October Lord Young had arranged a reception at the Foreign Office to launch the catalogues. 'We had 47 Lords and Sirs, ' Dr Khalili told me, '40 ambassadors, Edwina Currie and Kenneth Clarke.' He asked me to quote the following paragraph from the speech he made, which gives a good idea of his style:

'Art is a universal language that can unite the hearts of mankind, crossing all frontiers, penetrating everywhere. The moment has come for the 'people of the book' - Jews, Christians, Muslims - to speak openly to one another and to see clearly the close cultural, social, spiritual and intellectual ties that have existed between them for centuries. In fact, Jews and Muslims are cousins, and I believe it is far better for us to live together in peace and harmony, than die together in disgrace.' He suggests Government support for his museum would help smooth Britain's relations with the Islamic world.

Khalili also told me a little about his life - just the highlights. His early life was spent in Tehran. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all art dealers. At the age of 14 he published his first book, a biography of 215 geniuses. His achievement was highlighted on Iranian television, ministers came to the book launch and he was asked to write regular columns in two newspapers.

At 17 he left Iran for New York to study computer science at Queens College. He chose this subject as a challenge - physics had been the only subject in which he had not recorded straight As at school. He graduated in 1972 and began to deal in Islamic art in the US. In 1978 he married a 21-year- old English girl called Marion Easton. He had gone into a Bond Street jeweller's to buy a present and saw Marion serving a customer. 'I said to myself: if she is Jewish and unmarried, I will marry her.' They have three sons and he says he is primarily a family man.

The Nour Foundation - nour means 'light' in Arabic, Persian and Turkish - is a company, registered in Switzerland and owned by the Khalili Family Trust, he says. The Trust was settled by his father and is registered in Liechtenstein. The fortune was made by combining his own genius with his father's capital and is vested in the Trust. The collection belongs to the Nour Foundation.

The Nour Foundation (UK) Ltd is a subsidiary of the Swiss Nour Foundation and was set up to handle arrangements for the collection's exhibition. The Nour Foundation will lease the collection to the Nour Foundation (UK) for the duration of any loan. If Britain does not want the collection, Lord Young and his team will offer it to the governments of other countries - several of whom have already expressed interest, according to Khalili.

To compound the mystery of this man and his incredible wealth, I can reveal that he has quietly begun a second art collection. It is devoted to Japanese art of the Meiji period. Barry Davies Oriental Antiques, a Mayfair dealer, acts as adviser and is co-ordinating the eight-volume catalogue. 'I trot round the globe buying whole collections for him,' Mr Davies told me. 'He now has the best collection in the world.'-

(Photograph omitted)

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