Two traditions determine the make-up of most private collections today. One is that of the connoisseur, who gathers together a few select items on the basis of their aesthetic merit. The other is the comprehensive approach, where the emphasis of the collector is on assembling complete series of objects. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art is remarkable in that it combines both these traditions within an overall scheme.
In striving to provide a synoptic vision of the arts of the entire Islamic world, Professor Khalili has revived the heroic age of collecting. Since the 1970s he has assembled his collection of Islamic art under the auspices of The Khalili Family Trust. With holdings of more than 20,000 objects documenting the range of artistic production of the Islamic lands over a period of some 1,400 years, the Collection now ranks among the best in the world and represents a new generation of Islamic art collections.
The Collection includes an outstanding array of manuscripts of the Holy Qur’an and of illustrated manuscripts, and the coverage of the decorative arts – ceramics, textiles, glass, metalwork, as well as seals and coins – is comprehensive. A central place has been given to the art of calligraphy, which plays an essential role in the art of the Islamic world.
The holdings of manuscripts and folios of the Holy Qur’an are the first to have been assembled systematically in order to illustrate the whole history of Qur’an production, both in terms of time span and geographical range – from the 8th to the 20th centuries, and from Morocco to China. The result is a fascinating and diverse body of material, and one that is united by the honour paid by patrons, scribes and craftsmen to the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Similar sequences have been assembled for painting and the decorative arts. Masterpieces in painting from the Mongol period onwards include the 14th-century Compendium of Chronicles of Rashid al-Din; the Book of Kings made for Shah Tahmasp, ruler of Iran in the 16th century; the Life of the Prophet commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Murad III and completed in 1595; album paintings by the 17th-century master Mu’in Musavvir; and an extensively illustrated Book of Divination produced in the Deccan in the same period. Glass and metalwork, for example, are represented in the full range of techniques from pre-Islamic period through to the 19th century. This mass of material is important in its own terms, but it also provides a visual context for the other items in the Collection.
Later Islamic art has not generally enjoyed the same level of attention as that of the 10th–16th centuries. Yet, the wealth of important objects and manuscripts from later periods in the Collection shows that much art worthy of our attention on aesthetic as well as historical and intellectual grounds was produced in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The touchstone is again calligraphy, which reached a summit of excellence in 19th-century Istanbul that has hardly been matched in any other civilization. Another important art form of this period is Islamic lacquer, represented in the Collection by more than 500 examples. Through these works one can trace the history of this art from its definitive technical formulation in the late 15th century, through the great stylistic changes of the 17th century, until production all but ceased after the fall of the Qajar dynasty in 1924.
The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art is an unprecedented 27-volume series (comprising 33 books), of which 17 (21 books) are now published, and when completed will form a unique survey of the field to date. The General Editor is Dr Julian Raby, previously Lecturer at Oxford University and currently Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Eminent academics and specialists around the world have been commissioned to write the volumes. Among them are Professor Sheila S. Blair, Norma Jean Calderwood Chair in Fine Arts, Boston College, Boston, and a specialist in Persian arts; Professor François Déroche, Fellow of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Director of studies at the Ecole pratique des hautes études, and a specialist in early Qur’ans and the history of the handwritten book in the Islamic world; Professor Geoffrey Khan, Fellow of the British Academy, the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Cambridge University, and a specialist in Arabic papyrology; Professor Michael Rogers, Fellow of The British Academy, former Curator of the Islamic Department at the British Museum, first holder of The Khalili Chair of Islamic Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and currently the Honorary Curator of the Collection; Professor Emilie Savage-Smith, Fellow of The British Academy, Professor of the History of Islamic Science, Oxford University, and a specialist in Islamic science, medicine and magic.
Studies in the Khalili Collection is a second series of publications related to the Islamic art collection, presenting more detailed analysis of certain objects. Five volumes in this series have been published: one on Arabic papyri from Egypt; one on Arabic documents from Khurasan; one (in three parts) on Bactrian documents, some of which mention the same names/families/individuals cited in some of the contemporary Khurasani documents; one on the Portolan Atlas of Piri Reis, which includes a full facsimile; and one on Arab-Byzantine coinage. Again, the finest scholars have written on these special topics: Professor Geoffrey Khan, mentioned above; Professor Nicholas Sims-Williams, Fellow of the British Academy and Research Professor of Iranian and Central Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a specialist in Middle Iranian languages of Eastern Iran and Central Asia, including Sogdian and Bactrian; Professor Svat Soucek, Professor Emeritus of History, Princeton University, and a specialist in historic cartography; and Tony Goodwin, specialist in Byzantine and early Islamic coinage of the 7th century.
Professor J. M. Rogers
Curator and Registrar
Dr Rebecca Foote