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Islamic collection offered to Britain.

One of the world's most lavish and comprehensive collections of Islamic art, said to be worth |pounds~1bn, has been offered to Britain by its owner, Dr Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian born millionaire.

However, the British art establishment is underwhelmed by the offer which comes with a number of conditions. Dr Khalili would like a central London location for his collection, which contains more than 20,000 items, including 500 Korans. He also wants his proposed eponymous museum to be acquired, staffed and maintained by the British government. He would keep his collection there for 15 years, during which period he would be able to buy and sell for it.

There is no doubting the excellence of the collection which was started by Dr Khalili's grandfather in Iran. According to Professor J. M. Rogers, Professor of Islamic Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, the Khalili collection "has been formed with a far more systematic and historical approach and with a far less ethnocentric view" than earlier, classical collections of Islamic art which were mostly gathered in the period before the First World War.

He says that, before Dr Khalili, no-one had collected the ceramics of the Timurid period on a systematic basis. This pottery was produced in Iran and Central Asia in the 15th century, a period when diplomatic and commercial contacts with Ming China were intensive. The collection now has over 60 pieces which fall into this category and the intention is to display them alongside contemporary Chinese blue-and-white wares to bring out the links between them.

The Khalili collection is also very strong on Ottoman calligraphy and on Korans. Indeed its 500 Korans (compared with just 60 in the British Museum) are the largest number in one place outside the Muslim world. They include such peerless items as the only Koranic manuscript copied by the 13th century Baghdad master Yaqut al-Musta'simi to retain its original illumination.

According to Professor Rogers, Dr Khalili has applied "the same systematic approach to every area of Islamic art", including glass, arms and armour, scientific instruments, jewellery and inscribed seals.

However, the merits of the collection has failed to convince the influential Art Newspaper which has commented in a front page editorial, "Between the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London already has the finest collections of Middle Eastern art in the world. The Khalili collection would therefore not be adding to the range of art to be seen in the capital. Nor would it be a significant gesture towards Britain's 2.5m Muslims, because those Muslims mostly come from the Indian sub-continent and the Khalili collection has about as much connection with their material culture as a collection of French medieval art has with Czech baroque art.

"A far more significant gesture by the government towards Britain's immigrant community would be a hefty grant for the proposed Indian museum in Bradford, which the V&A wants to create in order to display the nation's holdings of Indian art, mostly in store since the closure of the Indian Museum in 1947."

Dr Khalili's proposed gift has been likened to the collection of Old Masters which was half-offered to Britain by its owner Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and eventually ended up in Spain. The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, lobbied hard for the so-called Thyssen collection to come to Britain. But Spain offered it better facilities, and agreed to pay a substantial "rent" to Baron Thyssen.

Dr Khalili himself was born in Isfahan 46 years ago. His grandfather started his collection, which was continued by his father, now 84, who used to be an art dealer in Tehran. After becoming an American citizen, he settled in London in 1980. He has an English wife and three children. For a decade, from the mid-1970s, he operated as a dealer from Clifford Street in London. His activity as a dealer enabled him to acquire much of his collection at reasonable prices rather than coming into the market as a rich collector and pushing up prices.

"It has been my aspiration to assemble as comprehensive a collection of Islamic art as possible," says Dr Khalili. "And my reward for more than two decades of hard work is a collection that illustrates the whole material culture of the Islamic lands."

He continues, "There is a Persian proverb that is often used to decorate works of art: 'Ultimately, all possessions are God's alone; we are mere custodians'. What more telling moral could be found to justify the establishment of a public museum of Islamic art?"
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mosaic
Author:Lycett, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:766
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