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Oil millionaires chase dwindling Islamic art

Oil millionaires chase dwindling Islamic art
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First Published: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 30 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 30 AM IST
Bangkok: Nasser David Khalili, catapulted into the top five of the UK rich list by the soaring value of his Islamic art, said the jump in prices for old works by Muslim artists has barely begun.
“Anyone who says Islamic art is expensive is dreaming,” said Khalili, an Iranian-born Jewish collector. “The Muslim world is not short of money, the world is short of objects. This is only the beginning.”
Governments and millionaires in nations from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, enriched by a doubling of crude oil prices in four years, are bidding for a dwindling supply of surviving artefacts from 1,400 years of Islamic culture. Khalili said his seven-century-old “Jami’ al-Tawarikh,” one of the world’s earliest histories, is now worth 15-20 times the $12 million (Rs49 crore) he paid for it in 1990.
“Islamic art is still under-appreciated and undervalued compared to other areas of the market,” said Edward Gibbs, 42, head of Islamic and Indian Art at Sotheby’s, the world’s second largest auction house. “The booming economies of the Middle East and the wealth created have fuelled interest.”
Khalili has amassed more than 20,000 Islamic works spanning 1,400 years since he started buying in the 1970s, probably the world’s biggest private collection. An exhibition of more than 350 of the pieces opened 22 June in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. The owner of London-based real estate company Favermead Ltd was worth £5.8 billion, according to the 2007 Sunday Times’ Rich List. He jumped 94 places from last year. The value of his art was estimated at £4.5 billion, compared with £500 million a year ago, according to London-based Art Newspaper, which said the new valuation may be too high.
‘Buy back your culture’
Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and private buyers are vying to preserve their heritage and boost museum collections. The Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar is scheduled to open by the end of the year. The emirate of Abu Dhabi plans to spend €400 million over 10 years building a collection as part of a complex that will include branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Private Muslim collectors should “buy back your culture now before it’s too expensive,” said Charles Pocock, managing partner at Dubai’s Meem Gallery.
Still, the market for Islamic art remains a fraction of that for Western art. Sotheby’s sold about $8.8 million of Islamic art at its London auction in April, almost a quarter more than the pre-sale estimate. Rival Christie’s International auctioned $7.8 million Islamic and Indian works the same month in London.
The two biggest auction houses sold $1.44 billion of art, mostly Western works, at their spring sales in New York the next month.
The small size of the Islamic art market means that a handful of major collectors have a big influence on prices.
“The very top end of the market is the domain of a very small number of people,” said William Robinson, director of Christie’s Islamic art department in London.
The market fell in 2005 after Qatar’s Sheikh Saud Mohammed al-Thani, a member of the ruling family, was investigated for alleged misuse of public funds in connection with his purchases for Qatar museums.
He was removed as chairman of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage. He was later pardoned, Art Newspaper reported in April.
Saud bought a Mughal agate and garnet fly-whisk handle in April 2004 for £901,250, 113 times its £8,000 estimate, the paper said.
“When one big buyer like that goes missing, it is going to upset the market quite a lot,” said Lucien de Guise, 46, acting head curator of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. “Because there are other museums developing collections, the market has bounced back.”
Sotheby’s sales of Islamic art in London more than doubled to £8.3 million in 2006, from £3.68 million in 2002, Gibbs said.
Smaller rival Bonhams, London’s third largest auction house, plans to hold its first sale in Dubai in November.
Gold domes
Islamic art typically includes religious and secular items between the seventh and 19th centuries from nations such as Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and India.
It offers pages from the Koran, Arabic calligraphy and manuscripts, ceramics and vessels from Spain and Turkey, and rainbow-hued miniature paintings from Iran.
“Anything that is made mainly by Muslims for Muslims, especially in a sacred setting like a mosque, would have to count as Islamic art,” said De Guise.
“At the top of the hierarchy will be the Koran and other written religious works.”
Opened in 1998 and housed under turquoise and gold domes, Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Arts Museum has 8,000 objects, including vases from China, jewellery from India and Indonesian textiles.
Personal wealth in West Asia is expected to rise to $2.2 trillion by 2011 from $1.4 trillion in 2006, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Capgemini SA said in a 2007 world wealth report.
The number of US-dollar millionaires in the region rose 11.9% to more than 300,000 last year, the report said.
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First Published: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 30 AM IST