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How much is David Khalili’s Islamic art worth?

The Sunday Times values it at $9 billion, but several dealers disagree

London

How can a collection of Islamic art valued at £500m ($850m) a year ago be worth £4.5bn ($9bn) this year? The Sunday Times estimates the holdings of the Jewish-Iranian property mogul David Khalili at a “tentative £4.5bn” ($9bn), in its 2007 Rich List, published last month (see below). Dr Khalili is now Britain’s fifth richest man, says the newspaper, following its “revaluation” of his Islamic art. Dr Khalili was in 99th place in the 2006 list, with a fortune of £610m ($1.16bn). This year, The Sunday Times estimates he is worth £5.8bn ($11.6bn).

Despite rapidly rising prices in other sections of the art market, the market for Islamic art is only slowly recovering from the disgrace of Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar who, until his arrest in 2005, paid the highest prices. But he is no longer a major player and, as we revealed, some of the prices paid by the Sheikh were artificially inflated (May 2005, p1). So values have not been boosted by any recent rise in the Islamic market.

Dealers’ reactions to the £4.5bn appraisal range from incredulity to anger. One said: “Even if you take a high estimate for the Khalili collection—and then double it—you still wouldn’t reach a value of £1bn [$2bn].” The same dealer suggested that Dr Khalili is considering selling parts of the collection to Abu Dhabi for its branch of the Louvre museum set to open in 2012, a rumour that Dr Khalili denies.

Another leading London dealer, who worked with Dr Khalili in the 1970s when the collector was still a minor art dealer himself, said: “The valuation is ridiculous. The collection could be worth £200m, even £500m, but not more. It’s bad for the market and it’s bad for collectors to have such an inaccurate price put on it. How can they compare him with the Duke of Westminster, for example? It’s absurd,” he said.

Philip Beresford, the editor of the Rich List, said: “Talking to various art people and Islamic scholars, the view was that the collection has huge potential value. In retrospect I will almost certainly cut it back next year as any price would be far less if the market was flooded with the giant collection. This will bring it into line with the other art fortunes of the old aristocracy.”

Dr Khalili’s PR, Sue Bond, said that: “We never discuss the value of the collection,” but suggested that The Sunday Times valuation is accurate. “The newspaper clearly did its research,” she added.

This month the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney is showing “Treasures from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection” (22 June-23 September). We understand that this has been insured for £400m. As this is the cream of the collection, it is hard to see where the extra £4bn comes from.

What he owns

Dr Khalili has a 20,000-strong collection of Islamic art, which is being published in a 27-volume catalogue at a reported cost of £8m ($16m); 17 volumes have already appeared. His other collections cover Japanese Meiji metalware, ceramics, Swedish textiles, Spanish damascene metalwork and enamels.

The star holding in the collection, the Khalili portion of the fabled manuscript of Jami’ al-Tawarikh, the “universal history” of Rashid al-Din, produced in Tabriz (today in Iran) in 1314, is of huge significance. The other portion is in the University Library, Edinburgh. It is considered the finest medieval manuscript ever produced in East or West, and is reportedly the most expensive ever sold, although the price has never been revealed. This, according to one scholar, could be worth well over £4.5m ($8m). But many of the objects in the collection—which includes 8,000 coins—could be worth less than £100,000 each.

This does not mean that the collection is not of fine quality, because it is remarkable in scope and breadth. An outright purchase would produce an instant museum of Islamic art, at a time when a number of Middle Eastern countries are engaged in a frenetic rush to create museums. Persistent rumours maintain that Dr Khalili will sell the collection to a museum, and he has said he “would like to house the collections under one roof”. Meanwhile, with such a high valuation, he could always borrow money against it from the bank.