Healing the world with art

David Khalili is a billionaire collector on an epic scale. In a rare interview, he tells Martin Gayford that he hopes his unique pieces can bring people together.
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The Independent Online

"The question of value," David Khalili insists, "is irrelevant. Nothing belongs to anyone for ever: we are all temporary custodians. If you are here to be the custodian of a certain tradition, let it be." It is a surprising view, perhaps, for one of the world's foremost art collectors. But then, Khalili is a most unusual collector - and also an extraordinary man.

"The question of value," David Khalili insists, "is irrelevant. Nothing belongs to anyone for ever: we are all temporary custodians. If you are here to be the custodian of a certain tradition, let it be." It is a surprising view, perhaps, for one of the world's foremost art collectors. But then, Khalili is a most unusual collector - and also an extraordinary man.

So remarkable are the masterpieces of his collection, that it is able to complement that of the mighty Hermitage in St Petersburg. The majority of the exhibits in the current show "Heaven On Earth: Art From Islamic Lands" at the Hermitage Rooms in London's Somerset House come from Russia. But a substantial proportion are provided by Khalili. What the tsars and the Soviets didn't manage to amass, he has acquired.

In the inner circles of the art world his name - though not widely known to the general public - is placed with such predecessors as J Paul Getty and Calouste Gulbenkian. He is, like them, an art collector on an epic scale. Over the last 30 years he has built up a vast array of more than 20,000 objects, including the most comprehensive holding of Islamic art ever in private hands. He also has the most complete collection of decorative work from the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan, plus smaller accumulations of Swedish textiles and Spanish metalwork.

But his aim in putting together this astounding panoply of ancient Korans, Persian miniatures, precious ceramics, intricate metal-work, glass, jewels, superb carpets and endless other items - is not that of the billionaire collector of fable, who gloats alone over his possessions in a mansion. Khalili's motives are idealistic and educational. He wants the world to understand these things better and value them more highly.

"Giving exhibitions is like throwing a drop into an ocean. Any contribution to the enhancement of the understanding of Islamic culture adds to that ocean, which I call the ocean of understanding. The greatest and one of the strongest bridges between cultures is the one that is built out of art. Religion and politics have their own dialects. The language of art is universal. There you are safe. Nobody can label you."

Khalili values his privacy, and seldom gives interviews - indeed, I was warned when I made the request, hardly ever. But when I met him in his Mayfair headquarters he turned out to be dapper, friendly and extremely articulate.

Nasser David Khalili was born 58 years ago in Isfahan, Iran. He came from a family of Jewish art dealers. At the age of 14, after a row with a school teacher, he decided to write a book - and produced a set of lives of the world's geniuses that proved to be a bestseller. At this stage, he had already begun to buy works of art.

"My very, very first purchase was when I was about 12 or 13. My father used to take me wherever he went buying or selling anything from the age of eight, because amongst my other sisters and brothers I was the only one who showed interest. We bought ordinary things like Persian lacquer to start with. Many years later I did my PhD on Persian lacquer."

In 1967 Khalili left Iran for New York, funded partly by the royalties from his book. As he has often said, after experiencing life in the aquarium, he wanted to find out what it was like in the sea. And once in the US, he began to deal in art, and also to invest in property. In the end, unlike most dealers, he found himself loath to part with his finest pieces, so his activities in property began to fund what became a permanent collection - and continue to do so. A couple of years ago he created a stir by putting on the market a mansion in Kensington which - with an asking price of £80m - was the most expensive private house in Europe. It sold for £50m, but has recently been sold again, this time for £70m.

But why, I asked, did he buy in just the four areas he did - Islamic, Japanese, Swedish and Spanish? "The reason is that it was art - in all the four areas I have collected - that was unfairly neglected for many years, and that needed to be brought to the world's attention."

Islamic art was overlooked until recently, he feels, by the very countries that produced it. "People appreciate art of any kind - Renaissance, Impressionism, Modernism - when they were exposed to it. But this effort was not taken up by a lot of Muslim countries, they never tried all out to educate their masses in their own culture. Most of the books on the subject, and most of the scholars are not of Muslim origin. A simple example is me: I'm Jewish. But I consider the Muslims my cousins, I don't draw a line between myself and them at all.

"This is the attitude that should be taken by the Muslims towards other nations too - because at the end of the day Islam is one of the most harmonious religions in the world." One of Khalili's many charitable and educational initiatives is the Maimonides Foundation Trust - of which he is co-founder and chairman - which promotes peace and understanding between Muslims and Jews.

But what is the point in bringing together such staggering quantities of art? "Islamic art - or for that matter any art - is like a huge, beautiful picture made out of different pieces, like a jigsaw. You only appreciate the picture when all the pieces of the puzzle are put in place.

"Our collection presents the totality of Islamic art, the way it should be presented, from China to North Africa. I didn't want to collect only things that were made for kings and queens because that's the wrong way to present any culture. You have to represent the objects that were used in everyday life, in ordinary homes.

"I'm delighted to have every single object that we have, because every one of them is part of that picture. I know each one of them - where I bought it, whom I bought it from, how much I paid for it. That is why I was able to put together what I have put together. If somebody walked in with something, I always immediately knew whether I had a space for it, or whether I have a similar one, or a better one. Often I have made the decision whether to buy or not in less than 50 seconds."

The value of the whole lot is incalculable - certainly more than £100m, but any such estimate would be arbitrary, and, as he says himself, "Finally, money is just paper. My loyalty is to the objects; to be hnoest, I really don't care about the financial side of it too much. People forget that whenever you are faced with a masterpiece, the day you pay for it it may be a bit expensive, but if you wait one month, two months, six months, then it becomes terribly cheap." In recent years, however, his buying - which sometimes ran at up to 20 pieces a week - has slackened, and he is devoting more of his attention to publishing the catalogues of his collection, which will run to a projected 40 luxurious and meticulously scholarly volumes.

Establishing a collection, he explains, is something that should be done in orderly stages. First you buy the objects, then conserve them. Next you research them, and publish the results - as he is now doing - and lend to exhibitions, such as the one at the Hermitage Rooms. Finally, the collection needs a permanent home. And for some time now, he has been thinking about that. Geneva has been considered, and finally turned down.

At present, he tells me, "I don't think - nor for that matter do any of my trustees [the collection is owned by the Khalili Family Trust] - that there is any question of it going anywhere else except this country. This is my adopted home. I'm British. I'm extremely proud to be British, I'm proud of the system in this country. My wife is British, my children were born here. I want to repay some of the privileges I've been given. But I can't say anything about the timing."

London has let slip many a great collection - the Gulbenkian, for example, and the Thyssen - but it sounds as if the Khalili Collection won't be one of them. On the way out, he points to his latest purchase, which has just arrived. It is a small, charming 18th-century Persian painting - much the sort of thing he started off by buying all those years ago. And it is obvious that, like every other object he owns, he loves it.