Iranian Student With $750 Turns Billionaire — Made by Islamic Art

April 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By William Green, Bloomberg

stoneHead_plate March 30 (Bloomberg) — Nasser David Khalili stands in an exhibition hall in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, gazing at an 18th-century painted enamel of flowers that’s one of 25,000 works of art he owns. “I’d have paid anything for it,” he says, appraising this miniature by Frenchman Philippe Parpette. “There’s no way I’d have let anybody else buy it.”

Khalili, 64, an Iranian-born billionaire who lives in London, has come to Russia to unveil his fifth art collection: On this overcast December afternoon, 320 of his 1,200 enamel treasures will go on display at the State Hermitage Museum, home to the collection of Catherine the Great, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its May issue.

Having flown in on a chartered plane, Khalili is relishing a private preview, peering through tinted eyeglasses at such possessions as a gilded clock with matching candelabras that once adorned the home of U.S. railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt. Khalili, who says he has a photographic memory, recalls paying $16,500 for these three pieces 34 years ago. He estimates that they’d now cost $600,000.

In all, Khalili says the enamels he has lent the museum are insured for more than 100 million pounds ($150 million). Even so, they are a trifle compared with the obsession that’s consumed him for four decades: his 20,000 pieces of Islamic art. “His collection is certainly the best in private hands,” says Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s London-based head of Middle Eastern art. “He is the man who has everything. He’s come to define the market.”

Khalili is revealing his latest collection just as the $43 billion global art market is showing signs of reviving — with an Alberto Giacometti sculpture selling for a record 65 million pounds in February to a buyer later identified by dealers as London-based billionaire Lily Safra. In the Islamic art world, prices for the best pieces have been buoyed by a new generation of Middle Eastern buyers, including museums in Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

“There’s fierce competition for anything unique, rare, beautiful or important,” Gibbs says, noting that an Islamic textile Sotheby’s estimated would fetch $250,000 to $350,000 in a March 2009 auction went to Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art for $3.4 million.

The limited supply in this niche within the art market has made Khalili’s collection all the more precious, says Claire Penhallurick, an Islamic art consultant for Bonhams auction house. She says it’s impossible to guess what his entire collection is worth.

“How could you value something that’s unique and irreplaceable?” Penhallurick says. “If you had all the money in the world, you couldn’t assemble his collection now.”

When an exhibition of 471 of Khalili’s Islamic pieces opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in October, they alone were insured for almost 600 million pounds.

The story behind how Khalili built his fortune has long been shrouded in secrets. As a property developer, he shunned publicity and didn’t slap his name on buildings or the company that is his main investment vehicle. He has also operated under the radar when buying art.

“During the collecting, I don’t say anything,” Khalili says. “When it’s done, then I speak.”

His elusiveness has fueled much speculation, often revolving around how he financed his collecting. Khalili, who left Iran in 1967 with $750, says he’s since spent $650 million on art. London’s Sunday Times, which estimated his fortune at 5.8 billion pounds in 2007, gave up guessing his worth the following year and removed him from its annual rich list.

Khalili, whose works are held in a family trust, says he used subterfuge to amass his Islamic collection, pretending for several years to be an art dealer so he could acquire pieces at wholesale prices. While his stealth has often obscured the scale of his buying, the magazine ARTnews says Khalili is one of Britain’s top collectors, along with Safra and private museum owner Charles Saatchi.

The Iranian says he’s aware of whispers within the art trade that he grew rich buying Islamic works for Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Sitting in his office in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, where the treasures on display include an 8th- century bronze camel and a 7,000-year-old stone sculpture, Khalili beats his chest with his hand when asked about the rumors.

“I didn’t buy anything for anybody. Nobody, right?” he says. “I bought for myself. This is all bulls—, all right?”

The questions surrounding Khalili stem in part from his emergence in the 1980s as a trailblazer in Islamic collecting.

“There was this sudden transformation,” says William Robinson, director of Islamic art at Christie’s International. “In the late 1980s he was the No. 1 buyer.” Robinson and others thought he was buying as the exclusive agent for a powerful client. “It was assumed that the Sultan of Brunei was behind it,” Robinson says. “I really don’t know.”

Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Britain’s press also fueled speculation about the source of Khalili’s riches. “He spends on a scale no art collector has done before,” London’s Independent wrote in 1994. “Yet no one knows where his money comes from. … (Khalili) vehemently denies the suggestion that he has been secretly investing the sultan’s money rather than his own.”

Khalili says he met the Sultan of Brunei around 1984, after the U.K.’s Foreign Office asked him to advise the monarch on creating an Islamic gallery at the Brunei Museum.

“He had about 10,000 pieces,” Khalili says. “I chose about 1,000 pieces and said, ‘Throw the rest away. They’re junk.’”

As a favor, he says, he selected several items for the Sultan to buy at auction and the Khalili family trust sold him a dozen pieces from its Islamic collection, including Qurans, metalwork and textiles, for about 4 million pounds.

Khalili dismisses rumors that he sold art to the Sultan at inflated prices, pointing out that he later convinced him to donate 10 million pounds to the University of London for an Islamic gallery.

“If you rip somebody off, would they turn around and give you 10 million pounds to build a gallery?” he asks.

It’s now obvious he was buying for himself, Khalili says, since his Islamic collection is cataloged in 19 books written by an army of scholars he has hired to document its provenance and authenticity.

Khalili, who has also built collections of Japanese Meiji art, Spanish metalwork and Swedish textiles since 1975, says the value of his artworks is irrelevant, because he will never sell them.

“All five collections are priceless: 2 billion pounds, 3 billion pounds, 4 billion pounds, it doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “These collections cannot be replaced.”

His Islamic treasures include a 14th-century Iranian world history by Rashid al-Din Fadlallah, which he says cost him 12 million pounds in 1990. “It’s one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts in the world,” says Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle East at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Khalili, who holds both U.S. and U.K. passports, offered to lend his Islamic collection to the British nation in 1992 if the government provided a museum to house it. Khalili says he stipulated that the loan would become a gift after 15 years if the collection was exhibited to his satisfaction; if not, he could take it back.

Outsider in London

“The offer to the British government was a really terrible one,” says Anna Somers Cocks, editor-in-chief of the London- based monthly Art Newspaper, because of this risk. After months with no response, Khalili abandoned the plan. Still lacking a permanent home, most of his artworks are stored in warehouses in London and Geneva.

Michael Franses, a U.K.-based retired dealer in rare carpets who’s known Khalili since the 1970s, says this rebuff reflected Khalili’s outsider status in his adopted country.

“The British establishment was very closed,” Franses says. “I don’t think people trusted him because he was Iranian and strange and different.”

That setback is a distant memory as Khalili strides through the Hermitage, musing on how far he’s come since leaving Iran. His artworks have been showcased by 40 museums, including the Victoria & Albert and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Khalili also prides himself on the honors he has won for his philanthropy. An observant Jew who says he avoids discussions of politics, Khalili co-founded the Maimonides Foundation in 1995 to foster dialogue between Jews and Muslims through sports, cultural events and education. He also endowed a research center for Middle Eastern culture at the University of Oxford.

In recognition of Khalili’s interfaith work, Pope Benedict XVI anointed him last year as a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Sylvester.
“I’m self-made. I’ve done it all on my own,” says Khalili, whose 14-page resume is headlined: “Scholar, Benefactor and Collector.”

Khalili sees no contradiction in being Jewish and owning an Islamic collection.

“I fell in love with it because it was the most beautiful and diverse art,” he says.

In 2005, at the launch party for Khalili’s book The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture, Iran’s then- ambassador to London, Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, hailed him as “an ambassador for the culture of Islam.”

First Treasure

Khalili’s journey to the top of the art world began in Iran on Dec. 18, 1945. The fourth of five children, he grew up in Tehran. His mother counseled divorced women. His father — like his father before him — visited homes to acquire artworks he could sell for a few dollars profit.

As a child, Khalili tagged along when his father traded art, once joining him at the home of a former education minister with a collection of pen boxes. The 12-year-old yeshiva student was enraptured by a lacquer pen box painted with 800 men and horses, each one different. Khalili recalls that when he rhapsodized about the box, the owner’s eyes filled with tears.

“He turned round to my dad and said, ‘I’m not selling this to you. I’m giving this to your son,’” Khalili says. He still has the pen box in his Islamic collection. “So the first piece I didn’t buy; I was given,” he says.

Art Mentor

After high school, Khalili did national service, training as an army medic. At 22, he left Iran for New York, where he worked at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant while studying at Queens College, part of New York’s public education system. One evening, as Khalili sipped cream to soothe an ulcer, the restaurant manager scolded him for taking it without permission. Khalili threw his waiter’s jacket at his boss and decided he’d trade art to pay his school fees.

At an auction of Russian enamels months later, Khalili noticed the main bidder was Alan Hartman, whose family ran a Manhattan antiques store. Khalili borrowed several enamels from Hartman on consignment. He says he sold them that evening for a $26,000 profit to Iranian collectors he knew on Long Island, where many wealthy Iranians were settling. (Khalili’s four siblings have since moved there.)

Hartman, now 80, says he wanted to help because Khalili was a Jewish immigrant struggling to build a new life. “We felt sorry for him,” he says.

“Alan and I did a hell of a lot after that,” Khalili says. “In two years, I was a millionaire.”

Friends say it was typical of Khalili that he’d launched himself by charming a stranger into lending him art.

“He has a way of winning people over,” says Sotheby’s Gibbs.

Tactile Billionaire

In person, Khalili exudes warmth: Meeting someone for the first time, he’s liable to introduce himself with a hug. He stands close to people, resting his hand on their arm, shoulder or back.

Before graduating from Queens in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences, Khalili was already amassing his own collection.

“I used to buy a group of objects — let’s say, 10 objects for $100,000 — keep 3 or 4 of the best aside and sell the rest for $250,000,” he says. “I used my knowledge to create money to finance my dream.”

In 1978, Khalili married Marion Easton, an Englishwoman he’d met while buying jewelry from her in a London antique store, and they settled in the U.K. capital. They have three sons: Daniel, 28, a jewelry designer, and twins Benjamin and Raphael, 25, who invest family money in startups such as PlayPit Games Ltd., an online entertainment company.

Decoy Shop

In addition to dealing art, Khalili says he began in the late 1970s to buy commercial properties in the U.K., France, Portugal and Spain.

“As he made money with property, he put it into art,” says Franses, the retired carpet dealer. “He was only ever interested in the art.”

Khalili approached him whenever he had cash to spare, buying such rarities as two 16th-century rugs that Franses says would now cost 2 million pounds each.

Khalili deployed misdirection to his advantage when he opened an Islamic art store in London in 1978. For three years, Khalili says he used the shop as a ruse to obtain dealers’ prices.

“I never sold anything there; I used that place as a decoy and bought unbelievable stuff,” he says.

“His timing was impeccable,” says Penhallurick. Islamic art was such a backwater that dedicated Islamic auctions didn’t begin until the 1970s. Khalili — whose main rivals at the time included the Kuwaiti royal family and the David Collection, owned by a Danish foundation — says many pieces he acquired then would now cost 10 to 50 times more.

Beautiful and Overlooked

“Anything that is beautiful and was overlooked, I bought,” says Khalili, who received a Ph.D. in Islamic lacquer at the University of London in 1988.

By the mid-1980s, Khalili says, his purchases were partly funded by venture capital investments that he declines to name. He says he made 30 times his money off shares he had bought in the late 1970s in a company developing technology to treat tumors. In 1987, he says he pocketed $15 million from the sale of a private company that made indigestion pills.

Khalili says he stopped trading art around 1980 and bankrolled his collecting primarily with profits from property. In a typical deal, he says, he paid 32.5 million pounds in 1992 for Cameron Toll, an Edinburgh shopping mall, selling it two years later for 55 million pounds as the market revived. Public records show Khalili has owned various private property companies.

Property Development

His main vehicle, Favermead Ltd., was incorporated in the U.K. in 1992 and sold 97 million pounds of property in 1995 alone, according to the company’s financial statements.

“Business is the least of my pride,” Khalili says. “Compared to collecting, it’s a piece of cake.”

Still, he currently owns a 60,000-square-foot (5,574- square-meter) business park in Exeter, England; a 32,000-square- foot building in Mayfair; and a site in central London where he plans to build a 320,000-square-foot, 13-story office tower when the real estate market recovers.

“If he starts building in the next 12 months, it’ll be very good timing as there’s very little available in the market,” says Gerald Ronson, CEO of London-based developer Heron International, which also bid for the central London site.

Mayfair Mansion

One personal property venture proved more problematic.

In 1993, Khalili began combining two buildings in Kensington that once housed the Russian and Egyptian embassies into a 55,000-square-foot home. Khalili says he spent 90 million pounds on the house, including 45 million pounds on the refurbishment. He employed 400 craftsmen for 4 years, installing 3,200 square meters of marble, a Turkish bath and underground parking for 20 cars. Marion Khalili says she refused to move in, deeming the house too palatial.

In 2001, Khalili unloaded the property for 50 million pounds to Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone, who sold it to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for 57 million pounds in 2004, according to public records. Khalili now lives instead in a seven-story Edwardian mansion in Mayfair.

These days, Khalili says, his buying of Islamic art has slowed. With competition intensifying, he’s turned his attention elsewhere. One afternoon in late February, he reveals that he’s already begun his sixth collection. This time, Khalili says, he’s acquired an existing trove of nearly 200 pieces, to which he’ll add more treasures.

And the collection’s theme?

“I’m not telling you,” Khalili says with a smile. With that, he draws a veil on the next chapter in the improbable story of the Iranian yeshiva student who became the world’s leading private collector of Islamic art.

–Editors: David Ellis, Jonathan Neumann

Bishop Williamson Rejects Holocaust Denial Punishment

October 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

IsraelNN.com

British Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson said on Sunday that he rejected the idea that he should be subject to punishment in Germany for denying the Holocaust on Swedish television, adding that he tried to prevent the interview from being broadcast there, according to a report by the German weekly Der Spiegel. Bishop Williamson’s German lawyer confirmed that the bishop had applied to a Nuremberg state court to issue an injunction, but said it was rejected in February.

The interview was conducted near the Bavarian city of Regensburg, shortly before the bishop’s excommunication was lifted by Pope Benedict XVI. Prosecutors in Regensburg applied last week for an order of punishment against Williamson, accusing him of incitement. A judge is expected to rule on whether to issue a fine next week.

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Effort to Build Large Mosque Rattles Some in Cologne

July 12, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

Mark Landler, AFP

COLOGNE: In a city with the greatest Gothic cathedral in Germany, and no fewer than a dozen Romanesque churches, adding a pair of fluted minarets would scarcely alter the skyline. Yet plans for a new mosque are rattling this ancient city to its foundations.

map of Cologne, Germany, close to the Belgian and Dutch borders.

The city’s Muslim population, made up mostly of Turks, is pushing for approval to build what would be one of Germany’s largest mosques, in a working-class district across town from the cathedral’s mighty spires.

Predictably, an extreme-right local political party has waged a noisy, xenophobic protest campaign, drumming up support from its far-right allies in Austria and Belgium.

But the proposal has also drawn fierce criticism from a respected German-Jewish writer, Ralph

Giordano, who said the mosque would be “an expression of the creeping Islamization of our land.” He does not want to see women shrouded in veils on German streets, he said.

Giordano’s charged remarks, first made at a public forum here last month, have catapulted this local dispute into a national debate in Germany over how a secular society, with Christian roots, should accommodate the religious yearnings of its Muslim minority.

Mosques have risen in recent years in Berlin, Mannheim and Duisberg, each time provoking hand-wringing among some residents. But the dispute in Cologne, a city Pope Benedict XVI once called the Rome of the north, seems deeper and more far-reaching.

While Turkey itself is debating the role of Islam in its political life, Germans are starting to ask how – even if – the 2.7 million people of Turkish descent here can square their religious and cultural beliefs with a pluralistic society that enshrines the rights of women.

Giordano, a Holocaust survivor, has been sharply criticized, including by fellow Jews, and has received death threats. But others said he was giving voice to Germans, who for reasons of their past, are reluctant to express misgivings about the rise of Islam in their midst.

“We have a common historical background that makes us overly cautious in dealing with these issues,” said the mayor of Cologne, Fritz Schramma, who supports the mosque but is not without his qualms.

“For me, it is self-evident that the Muslims need to have a prestigious place of worship,” said Schramma, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union. “But it bothers me when people have lived here for 35 years and they don’t speak a single word of German.”

Cologne’s Roman Catholic leader, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, is similarly ambivalent. Asked in a radio interview if he was afraid of the mosque, he said, “I don’t want to say I’m afraid, but I have an uneasy feeling.”

Those statements rankle German-Turkish leaders, who have been working with the city since 2001 to build a mosque on the site of a converted drug factory, which now houses a far smaller mosque, a community center and the offices of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs.

“The 120,000 Muslims of Cologne don’t have a single place they can point to with pride as the symbol of our faith,” said Bekir Alboga, leader of interreligious dialogue at the union, which is known as Ditib. “Christians have their churches, Jews have their synagogues.”

Alboga, a 44-year-old Turkish imam who immigrated here at 18 and speaks rapid-fire German, said the mosque would be a “crowning moment for religious tolerance.” Given Germany’s dark history, he added, “German politicians need to be careful about what they say.”

Alboga said he was particularly dismayed by Meisner, because the Catholic Church, along with Germany’s Protestant churches, has long supported the mosque. Ditib, he said, is a moderate organization that acts as a “bulwark against radicalism and terrorism.” It plans to finance the project, which will cost more than $20 million, entirely through donations.

The group must obtain a building permit before it can break ground, but Alboga said he was confident the mosque would not be blocked. Ditib has agreed to various stipulations, including a ban on broadcasting the call to prayer over loudspeakers outside the building.

Public opinion about the project seems guardedly supportive, with a majority of residents saying they favor it, although more than a quarter want its size to be reduced. The polls, taken for a local newspaper, use small samples, 500 people, limiting their usefulness as a gauge of popular sentiment in city of one million.

Cologne, with one of the largest Muslim populations of any German city, already has nearly 30 mosques. Most are in converted factories or warehouses, often tucked away in hidden courtyards, which has contributed to a sense that Muslims in Germany can worship only furtively.

The new mosque would put Islam in plain sight – all the more so because the design calls for a domed building with glass walls. Showing off a model, designed by a German architect who specializes in churches, Alboga said, “Our hearts are open, our doors are open, our mosque is open.”

In some ways, the mosque seems calculated to avoid touching nerves. It would not be built near a church or loom over its neighbors, like the new mosque in Duisberg. It would be flanked by multistory office buildings and a giant television tower, which would dwarf its minarets.

Yet the Turkish community has run into fervent and organized opposition. The far-right party, Pro Cologne, which holds five of the 90 seats in the city council, collected 23,000 signatures on a petition demanding the halting of the project. The city said only 15,000 of them were genuine.

On June 16, Pro Cologne mobilized 200 people at a rally to protest the mosque. Among those on hand were the leaders of Austria’s Freedom Party, which was founded by Jörg Haider, and the extremist party Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, from Antwerp. Both advocate the deportation of immigrants.

Cologne’s deputy mayor, Elfi Scho-Antwerpes, a Social Democrat, appeared with Turkish leaders at a counter-demonstration across the street. Schramma, she noted, did not show up.

Giordano, the German-Jewish writer, said Germany needed to face the fact that, after three generations of Turkish immigration, efforts to integrate that minority had failed. Immigrants, he said, sought the privileges of membership in German society but refused to bear the obligations.

Germany’s “false tolerance,” he asserted, enabled the Sept. 11 hijackers to use Hamburg as a haven in which to hatch their terrorist plot. Cologne, too, has struggled with radical Islamic figures, most notably Metin Kaplan, a militant Turkish cleric known as the Caliph of Cologne.

“I don’t want to see women on the street wearing burqas,” Giordano said. “I’m insulted by that – not by the women themselves, but by the people who turned them into human penguins.”

Such blunt language troubles other German Jews, who say a victim of religious persecution should not take a swipe at another religious minority.

Henryk Broder, a Jewish journalist who is a friend of Giordano’s, said he should have avoided the phrase “human penguins.”

But Broder said the underlying message was valid, and that Giordano’s stature as a writer gives him the standing to say it. “A mosque is more than a church or a synagogue,” he said. “It is a political statement.”

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