I meet Professor Nasser David Khalili at his office in Mayfair, on the top floor of a building shared with a fashionable clothing brand. Beautiful young people come and go through the lobby in which posters of exhibitions of Khalili’s collections are on display.
I am shown to the lift, but there is no button to press. The concierge waves a fob and the doors close. When they open again, I see Professor Khalili across a beautifully adorned, airy office. He is sitting behind his desk. There is no anteroom, no secretary. I am fortunate to have secured a rare audience with one of the richest men in the world.
Around the room is a host of intriguing works from Khalili’s personal collection. They include a contemporary photograph of two arms upstretched, one with tefillin wound around it and the other etched with Arabic calligraphy. This is no doubt representative of Khalili’s two great passions, Judaism and Islamic art.
He has in front of him a copy of my article, in this series on benefactors of the arts, about Elizabeth Sackler (JR, October 2010). “I knew Arthur, Elizabeth’s father, well. A great man and a great patron of the arts, who truly left his mark. It is good to see Elizabeth extending that legacy.”
As Elizabeth Sackler is synonymous with feminist art, Khalili has become synonymous with Islamic art. He has endowed Chairs in this field at his alma mater, Queen’s College in New York, where he received his BA, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, where he was awarded his PhD. There is also a Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East at Oxford University.
Khalili also has smaller but equally distinguished collections of Swedish textiles, Spanish metalwork, Japanese decorative art and enamels of the world. Adding his property interests, managed through his company Favermead, currently developing an innovative energy-efficient 220,000 square foot office block at Holborn Viaduct in central London, his worth is estimated as more than £5 billion. Not bad for a selfmade man from Iran.
Khalili was born in 1945 in Isfahan and brought up in Tehran by parents who were not fabulously wealthy but, according to their son,“rich in spirit”. His father was an antiques dealer and it was from him that Khalili developed his own love of art, often accompanying him on home visits. On one such trip, the young Khalili was wowed for the first time by an artwork, a lacquer pen box. It was given to him by its owner who was moved by his interest and it became the first piece in his collection.
In 1967, after completing his national service as an army medic, Khalili left Iran and travelled to the US to study computer science. It was in New York that his collecting first began, as a means to pay his way. He only resorted to collecting art professionally when he was fired from his job flipping burgers. Within two years he was a millionaire.
He would travel across the country buying up lots of work, keeping only the best and selling the rest. His skill lay in his eye and knowledge of Islamic art acquired from his father and his own study of the genre since childhood, though he admits that he was lucky to begin collecting when there was such a glut of good pieces.
He settled in the UK, which has been his home since 1978, after meeting his wife, Marion, on a visit to London in 1976. Marion was working in an antiques centre, and he knew on first sight that this would be the woman he would marry – if she was Jewish. He bought from her a brooch for his mother and an emerald ring and bracelet, which he gave to her.
Khalili always knew that he would wed within the religion. “The issue is very simple but because people follow their emotion, it is often overshadowed.” As he often does, he explains his position through a quote. “I always follow a beautiful biblical saying, used in Fiddler on the Roof. To paraphrase, when a bird falls in love with a fish, it is all okay; but where are they to go and build a house to live?”
In the early 1990s, Professor Khalili bought 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens, which previously housed the Russian and Egyptian Embassies. It was this that first propelled him into the public domain, as the renovation he oversaw for the next three years created a residence equal in size to the White House, and second only to Buckingham Palace in London, and seemingly as grand with marble imported from the same quarry in Agra as the Taj Mahal. When finished, their children, Daniel, the eldest, and two twin sons, Benjamin and Raphael, had flown the nest, and as Bloomberg has reported, Marion refused to move into the house, considering it too “palatial”.
“I run a very democratic family, and my family has a huge say in what we do. I have a saying that if you are in a crowd and you do not know where to go, put your child on your shoulder and they will point you in the right direction.” He compares his family to a secure home. “Myself and the three boys are the columns, and my wife is the roof. Any weakness will bring the house down.”
The house of Khalili though is constructed on strong foundations. 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens is still the most expensive private residence in London, now owned by the Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal. It is one of the many records Professor Khalili holds, of which he is evidently proud. These include being the longest-serving governor on the Board of SOAS (for 17 years); the youngest published author in Iran, at just 13 years old, when he wrote a compendium of 223 geniuses, a response to ridicule from a teacher at his Jewish day school for aspiring to be one himself; and, most famously, the custodian of the largest private collection of Islamic art in the world, in addition to collating the largest publication in art history, which will catalogue the 20,000 artworks in 27 volumes.
The secret to his success? “You dream, you plan, you pursue. If you don’t do that, you don’t get anywhere.” He adds: “In every field in which I have collected, I became an expert in the field before I collected.” This and a famously retentive memory have helped him to assess better than anyone the value of the art in his chosen fields.
Though amassing his collections is his life’s work, he has still to realise his most long-held dream – a dedicated museum for his collection of Islamic art in London. He reveals to me, exclusively, that this will happen before his 70th birthday in 2015.
“Many great collections have become dispersed because they did not think about how to maintain a museum. But we are working to establish a large enough endowment to secure our museum in perpetuity.”
Though I do not ask, I assume the museum will be named the Khalili Museum of Islamic Art. I note that each project he funds inherits the Khalili name. Is this the legacy that he wants to ensure? “I am not here to be praised. The praise should be reserved to go to the souls of the artists who have produced the magnificent works. I have just been lucky to be able to put them together for humanity.”
He tells me that it was the University which offered to give his name to the lecture theatre he funded at SOAS. “They insisted on there being a bust of me made to sit outside the theatre, alongside which there is a beautiful Japanese vase for which I give fresh flowers to be arranged every day.”
Though no longer a governor of SOAS, Khalili continues to teach at the controversial hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. I ask whether he ever has difficulties with the politicised students there. He has not personally experienced any antagonism. In his view “religion and politics have their own particular languages, and their own agendas. Art and culture are unique in having a universal language; ‘it is an ocean without shores’.”
Sharing the art he has collected with humanity is his mission. “I hate telling people I am here to educate you. I am here to inform you and to allow you to form your own opinion. It is my philosophy.” He refers to the need to learn about others’ way of life as being the philosophy of Maimonides, which he follows, “because by learning about it we will find there is more that unites than divides us.” It is for this reason that he set up the Maimonides Foundation, to foster dialogue and understanding between the Abrahamic religions.
This is a view he shares with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, with whom he has a “special relationship”, and who is a mentor to his children and an inspiration to him. “I consider the Chief Rabbi one of the greatest brains in the history of Judaism.” At Rabbi Sacks’ request Khalili funded the refurbishment of the Bloomstein Hall at the Marble Arch Synagogue.
Unlike many other billionaires, he has not offshored his great wealth. He takes pride in paying his taxes, believing it important to play a full role in contributing to the economic well-being of his adopted home. “I am a good advocate, because I talk to other wealthy people who try to avoid taxes and tell them to use their energy for making money and not to waste t avoiding taxes.”
Though he identifies first as an Iranian Jew, he is proud to be British too. “I am extremely fond of the UK, its tradition and its contribution to humanity.” He is proud also of his Iranian heritage. “Iranian Jews are the oldest Jews in the world and Iran has been a cradle of democracy since Cyrus the Great. Empathy has always existed between the Jews and Muslims in Iran. If anything, the way that Jews have been treated by the Muslims in Iran should be used as an example.”
Khalili continues to support the Jewish community in Iran, “but under the radar, as I learned from my parents, G-d bless their soul, that you should do things not for the heck of it, but for the sake of it.”
It is this value that he hopes to have instilled in his children. He does not plan to pass down all his wealth to them. “I wanted to ensure that my kids had an education, that they had independence and can follow their passion like I did. If I do more than that, I will dilute their mission in life. I want them to live and look forward to something and to achieve their own thing and get credit for it.”
Professor Khalili concludes the interview with an appeal. “Don’t concentrate so much on me, but concentrate on the art. I wish to shed light and understanding on how people run their lives. Each time I give an interview I want to have a message: the role culture can play in the betterment of people’s lives. There is no better bridge-builder. If I can change the life of even one person, then I will have succeeded.”
And what of his plans once the museum is established? “I plan to write my autobiography, but not for another 10 or 20 years.” This will be quite some story, of the Jewish man from Iran and his plan for the world’s greatest collection of Islamic art.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2011 Issue.
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