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

Community News (V12-I11)

March 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Concerns raised about mosque location

SHEBOYGAN,WI–Nearly 60 people showed up at the Wilson Town Hall Monday night for a 15-minute procedural exercise by the town Plan Commission, which voted unanimously to grant an extension of time for a Manitowoc doctor to obtain a conditional use permit to convert a former retail store into a mosque, an action that most of the people there opposed, the Sheboygan Press reported.

The vote to give Mansoor Mirza until May 10 to inspect and bring up to code the septic system at 9110 Sauk Trail Road was “not out of the ordinary,” Plan Commission Chairman Doug Fuller told commission members, who voted 7-0 to grant the extension without discussion.

Mirza is proposing converting the 5,000-square-foot former Tom’s of Wisconsin building into the county’s first mosque. Mirza bought the property as an investment and proposes renting it to the newly formed Islamic Society of Sheboygan County, of which he is one of the organizers.A public hearing last month attracted a similar-sized group of people, almost all of who were opposed to allowing the mosque because they feared “it would attract potential terrorists.”

MSA lounge vandalized at Brandeis

The Muslim Student Association suite at Brandeis University was vandalized on March 5, according to an e-mail to members of the association from Neda Eid ‘11, a member of the MSA executive board.

According to the e-mail, an individual or individuals attempted to open a painted-over door in Imam Talal Eid’s office, and many of the imam’s “desk materials were touched and unplugged. The lamps in the suite (most of them in the prayer room) were all turned upside down and unplugged.” Neda Eid added in a later e-mail to the Justice that “most of the permanent damage was to the wall in Imam Eid’s office.” Imam Eid told the Justice that his phone and computer were disconnected and that a valuable Quran was missing from his desk. He also said it was evident that the vandals had not removed their shoes, a rule members of the MSA had instituted after the recent renovations, before walking “where we pray and all over the place.”

Imam Eid said that he “could not believe it” when he discovered the vandalism. The MSA suite had recently undergone renovation, and Imam Eid said that he first called the contractor to see whether they were doing work in the suite. When the contractor said that no work was being done, Imam Eid contacted the Brandeis Police Department.

Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan said that an investigation into the details and the motives behind the vandalism is currently ongoing.

Spirit of Islam program at NJ Library

NEW JERSEY–Understanding the Spirit of Islam, hosted by the Community Diversity Council, was held at the Hunterdon County Library Headquarters in Raritan Township on March 6.

The event featured guest speaker Dr. Ali Chaudry, president and co-founder of the Center for Understanding Islam, who spoke about the spirit of the Islamic faith, the example of its founder the Prophet Muhammad, the essence of the Qur’an and the work of the American Muslim community in cultivating mutual respect and appreciation for the goals it holds in common with other faith tradition.

The talk also included an exhibit of various Qur’ans, beautiful Islamic calligraphy and selected books on Islam. Nearly 50 people came to hear Chaudry speak and enjoy the artwork.

Pakistani-American writer wins prize

Pakistani-American author Daniyal Mueenuddin has been awarded the $20,000 Story Prize for his collection of connected short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, published by W. W. Norton. The Story Prize is an annual award honoring the author of an outstanding collection of short stories.

The prize was presented to Mueenuddin at a reading and ceremony held in New York City. In addition, short story collections by Victoria Patterson (Drift, Mariner) and Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, FSG) were also honored and each author received a $5,000 prize.

Judges for the were novelist and short story writer A M. Homes, critic and book blogger Carolyn Kellogg, and Ohio-based public librarian Bill Kelly.

NU’s Najeeba Syed named to dean’s list

EVANSTON, IL–EVANSTON – Najeeba Syed of Crystal Lake was named to the dean’s list for the fall semester at Northwestern University.

She is the daughter of Dr. Mukaram and Sartaj Syed.

12-11

Mideast Firms Ramp Up in Iraq, Western Firms Trail

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Deepa Babington

2009-11-27T155315Z_1505821627_GM1E5BR1TSO01_RTRMADP_3_IRAQ-OIL

Workers dig a new oil well at South Rumaila oil field, in southern Iraq November 26, 2009. Britain’s BP and China’s CNPC have clinched a final agreement to operate Iraq’s biggest field, Rumaila, and groups led by Italy’s Eni and U.S. major Exxon Mobil have secured initial deals over Zubair and West Qurna Phase One. Picture taken November 26, 2009. 

REUTERS/Atef Hassan

BAGHDAD, Nov 30 (Reuters) – While Western firms notch up high-profile energy deals in Iraq, smaller regional firms from Iran to Turkey are quietly building a broader Iraqi presence by pumping billions of dollars into housing and other projects.

Pledges by companies to invest in Iraq are suddenly taking off as violence falls sharply and the government seeks help to rebuild after years of war, sanctions and bloodshed.

Investors have announced $156.7 billion worth of projects in Iraq this year, not all of which are likely to bear fruit, Dunia Frontier Consultants said in a report.
Much of the spotlight has fallen on mega-deals by Big Oil firms like Exxon Mobil <XOM.N> and BP <BP.L> for oilfields, but high security costs — 26 percent of total costs according to one estimate — have deterred Westerners from other sectors.

Meanwhile, Iranian investors have been piling into the Shi’ite Muslim tourism business, Turkish companies have cornered the market in the Kurdish north and Gulf companies, some run by Iraqi expatriates, are nailing construction deals.

Middle East firms are perhaps more accustomed to operating in difficult environments, and have an easier time navigating Iraqi red tape and corruption, analysts said.

“It is easier for Gulf and regional companies to operate here because they know the mentality here,” said Munther al Fattal, director of investment promotion at the U.S. agency for international development’s Tijara project.

“Security has greatly improved but there still are a lot of impediments such as bureaucracy and lack of transparency.”

While most investment projects announced in Iraq never seem to get off the ground, the growing business clout of regional firms is increasingly obvious.

Turkish firms have been investing in projects in the north and plan an $8 billion mixed development project in the south, while Iranian firms have catered to tourism supporting Shi’ite pilgrimages to the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala as well as industrial projects in Basra in the south, Dunia says.

Lebanese investors have opened up a bank and plan to set up a $500 million residential city and dairy factory in Diwaniya, while investors from the United Arab Emirates have been eyeing residential complexes and infrastructure projects.

US is Small Fry Outside Energy

The United Arab Emirates has emerged as the top foreign investor in Iraq this year with pledges of $37.7 billion, followed by South Korea and the United States, Dunia said.

But South Korea owes its number two spot almost entirely to a planned $20 billion investment in a new industrial city in Anbar province’s untapped gas fields, which appears to be little more than a pipedream or at the very least, aspirational.

The U.S. position in the rankings is almost entirely due to Exxon’s $25 billion contract for the West Qurna oilfield, which has yet to be ratified by the Iraqi cabinet. U.S. investment into Iraq accounts for less than 1 percent of the total if government contracts and oil are excluded.

A look at smaller deals offers a more revealing picture of the players with a wider presence in Iraq.

Lebanon tops the list of investment deals below $1 billion, followed by South Korea, Iran, the UAE and Turkey, Dunia said.

Once again, South Korea’s position in the list is misleading, exaggerated due to a single energy project.

“Once the major energy deals are stripped away, it is largely regional players that dominate,” the Dunia report said.

Some analysts say the dominance of Middle East players is likely to continue.

“Most of the investment will come from Gulf States and Jordan — with a significant contribution from Iran,” said Gavin Jones of Upper Quartile, an Edinburgh-based research firm.

He said repatriation of wealth by Iraqis living in Jordan or the Gulf could account for a sizeable chunk.

(Editing by Michael Christie; Editing by Victoria Main) ((deepa.babington@thomsonreuters.com, Baghdad newsroom, +964 7901 917 023, deepa.babington.reuters.com@reuters.net))

11-50