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the BeneFactorS

in the second of our series about Jewish philanthropists in the world of art DaViD rUSSell has the rare opportunity to meet naSSER david KhaLiLi, collector of islamic art and one of the richest men in the world

photo: terry o’neill

mater, Queen’s College in NewYork, where he received his BA, and at the School of Oriental andAfrican Studies (SOAS) in London, where he was awarded his PhD. There is also a Khalili Research Centre for theArt andMaterial Culture of theMiddle East at Oxford University. Khalili also has smaller but equally

distinguished collections of Swedish textiles, Spanishmetalwork, 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 HolbornViaduct in central London, his worth is estimated as more than £5 billion. Not bad for a self- mademan fromIran. Khalili was born in 1945 in Isfahan and

Imeet ProfessorNasserDavidKhalili at his office inMayfair, on the top floor of a build- ing sharedwith a fashionable clothing brand. Beautiful young people come and go through the lobby inwhich posters of exhibitions of Khalili’s collections are on display. I amshown 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 amfortunate to have secured a rare audience with one of the richestmen in the world. Around the roomis a host of intriguing

works fromKhalili’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 repres- ent ative of Khalili’s two great passions, Judaismand Islamic art. He has in front of hima copy ofmy

article, in this series on benefactors of the arts, about Elizabeth Sackler (JR, October 2010). “I knewArthur, Elizabeth’s father, well.Agreatman and a great patron of the arts, who truly left hismark. 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


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 fromhimthat Khalili developed his own love of art, often accompanying himon 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 himby its owner who wasmoved by his interest and it became the first piece in his collection. In 1967, after completing his national

service as an armymedic, Khalili left Iran and travelled to the US to study computer science. It was in NewYork that his collecting first began, as ameans to pay his way. He only resorted to collecting art professionally when he was fired fromhis job flipping burgers.Within two years he was amillionaire. 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 fromhis 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, aftermeeting 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 wouldmarry – if she was Jewish. He bought fromher a brooch for his mother and an emerald ring and bracelet, which he gave to her. Khalili always knewthat hewouldwed

within the religion. “The issue is very simple but because people followtheir emotion, it is often overshadowed.”As he often does, he explains his position through a quote. “I always followa beautiful biblical saying, used in Fiddler on the Roof. To paraphrase, when a bird falls in lovewith a fish, it is all okay; butwhere 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 himinto 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 BuckinghamPalace in London, and seemingly as grand withmarble imported fromthe same quarry inAgra as the Taj Mahal.When finished, their children, Daniel, the eldest, and two twin sones, Benjamin and Raphael, had flown the nest, and as Bloomberg has reported,Marion refused tomove into the house, considering it too “palatial”. “I run a very democratic family, andmy

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, andmy 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 themost expensive private residence in London, now owned by the Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal. It is one of themany 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 compendiumof 223 geniuses, a

JeWiSh renaiSSance octoBer 2011

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