Collection helps to build a bridge
NASSER David Khalili was ahead of this time. As early as the mid- 1970s, shortly after moving to America from Iran, he had begun to collect and deal in Islamic art in New York - well before others had recognised its value. An self- taught collector and born art dealer, Khalili had a strong sense of market values and was also prescient, buying against market trends and collecting ordinary objects such as coins and manuscripts from farflung places. By the mid- to- late 1980s, Khalili was considered the most important Islamic art collector in the world - and the Khalili Collection of Islamic art is the fruit of his labour.
‘‘ It is the most comprehensive collection of Islamic art in the world,’’ the collector says. ‘‘ In regards to value, all the experts say it is unrivalled. The financial value ( about $ 12 billion) is irrelevant. What’s important to me is all the academics’ and experts’ admission that the collection is irreplaceable. An infinite amount of time and money cannot replace it.’’
The collection is one of the most thoroughly researched and published ( it is being presented in an important 27- volume series, of which 17 are now published) in the world. Works from it have been exhibited in North America, Russia, Israel, most European countries and now Australia.
Unlike most national museums, which tend to concentrate only on the arts of their country, Khalili has collected pieces from almost all periods of Islamic history and from across the Islamic world.
Although largely secular in nature, a significant proportion of the collection is devoted to books and manuscripts, and there are outstanding collections of Korans and Persiana and Indian miniatures.
‘‘ The Koran itself was transmitted and taught orally,’’ says Michael Rogers, an eminent Islamic scholar and the exhibition’s curator. ‘‘ People are taught to memorise it, they don’t learn to read it in the book. In a way, the written books are superfluous. However, from our point of view, they are important because they guarantee the text.’’
The collection is also highly regarded for its emphasis on calligraphy and exquisite manuscripts such as the Jami’ al Tawarikh or Compendium of Chronicles by Rashid Al- Din, for which Khalili paid US$ 10 million ( A$ 11.8 million) at Sotheby’s in 1990. It is included in the AGNSW’s The Arts of Islam exhibition and is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest manuscripts from the Islamic world.
The illustration Rakhsh Slays a Dragon, also in The Arts of Islam, forms part of another important manuscript. ‘‘ It has something like 280 illustrations in it, of which there are 10 on exhibition here [ in The Arts of Islam]. Very few collections have more than one. The detail, brilliance of colour, the wonderful technique are all exemplified to the highest degree,’’ says Rogers.
The gold and enamelled jewelled works of the Moghuls, a small emerald box of 103 Columbian emeralds and a group of metal images depicting creatures, all featured in The Arts of Islam, are also exquisite, says Rogers.
‘‘ The metal images are extraordinarily naturalistic. Evidently they represent hunting animals in the rulers’ menageries. They are done with extraordinary liveliness and charm.’’
The quest to assemble the collection has played a central role in Khalili’s life and while he employs academics to write the catalogues and research the collection, he maintains control of it and says he has personally sourced every item.
He plays an active role in exhibitions such as the Art Gallery of NSW’s The Arts of Islam, ensuring the breadth and purpose of the Khalili Collection is properly reflected.
Khalili’s long- standing interest stems from his belief that Islamic art was largely overlooked yet had all the hallmarks of a great international art and culture. Slowly he began to realise the Khalili Collection could help promote a cause close to his heart: interfaith tolerance and greater understanding between Muslims and Jews.
‘‘ My realisation that culture has a big role to play came gradually as I was collecting,’’ says Khalili. ‘‘ I started to think that maybe collecting would build a bridge.’’
His aim now is to make the collection accessible to the widest possible audience through detailed catalogues and international exhibitions at the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Victoria & Albert museum in London, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Musee Rath in Geneva.
Khalili’s goal is to open his own museum, ‘‘ whereby the world will be able to see the collection,’’ he says.
RIGHT: CASKET SIGNED BY THE COURT PAINTER MIRZA BABA ORIGIN:
ABOVE: FLASK Origin: Ottoman Turkey, Isnik, c1560- 80AD. Stonepaste body, decorated underglaze in black, blue, green and bole- red. 46 x 22.8cm diameter LEFT: CROWNED HEAD Origin: Central Asia, 8th or 9th century AD. Limestone, carved and painted. 30 cm ( height). Islamic royal ceremonies, which grew in splendour as the power of the Caliphate waned, were already highly developed at the Abbasid court in 9th- and 10th- century Baghdad. This head, which was attached to the matrix rock at the back, must be from a frieze of slave soldiers which decorated the audience hall of a ruler’s palace.
ABOVE: SILVER- GILT FILIGREE CABINET Origin: Goa, probably 17th century AD. Silver- gilt filigree panels, set in a gilt metal skeleton. 57 x 40 x 32 cm. The hinged gabled lid lifts up to reveal a shallow drawer, while the doors at the front open to reveal two further drawers. Both the upper and lower sections could be locked, suggesting that the cabinet was used to hold jewels.
LEFT: JUDITH WITH THE SEVERED HEAD OF HOLOFERNES
The page is signed Ya Sahib al- Zaman ( O Lord of Time), an invocation to the 12th Shiite imam that was used as a crypto- signature by the painter Mohammad Zaman, who flourished under the Safavid ruler Shah Sulayman I ( 1666- 94). Six of his compositions on biblical subjects survive from the years 1678 and 1689.
Iran, 1211AH ( 1796/ 97 AD). Papier- mache body, with hinged lid. 42 x 29.2 x 19.4 cm