The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is a generous man. He heads a network of nonprofit development agencies and plans to open a museum for his collection of Islamic art in Toronto in 2013.
The 73-year-old philanthropist, in an introduction to the catalog, says he believes that tensions between Islam and the Western world are less about a “clash of civilizations’’ than “a battle of mutual ignorance.’’ Exhibiting his collection, which spans a vast area from Spain to China, is a way to fight that ignorance.
Koranic scripts, inscribed in gold and bordered with gouache arabesques in blues and reds, originate from Iran, Turkey, and India. Verses are written on a sea shell from the 18th century, and in tiny letters across a piece of green Indian cotton bordered in gold and blue.
The most astonishing script is on a gilded chestnut leaf whose filaments shine like filigree jewelry. The calligraphy is shaped to resemble a boat. It is a virtuoso piece of 19th-century Ottoman craftsmanship — so fragile and delicate, it’s hard to imagine how it survived.
The Aga Khan and the Hungarian-British lawyer Edmund de Unger must have found themselves competing for the same Islamic art treasures in their collecting careers. Now the two rival (or complementary) collections are on display in the same city.
De Unger has promised his Keir Collection to the Museum for Islamic Art, housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, as a long-term loan after his death. The museum is home to the 17th-century Aleppo room from Syria and the eighth-century facade of Mshatta palace from a Jordan desert town.
An exhibition of the first 112 of 1,500 objects that De Unger plans to loan to Berlin provides a taste of what is to come. His passion for Islamic art began with carpets; every floor in his home was covered in them — three-deep.
De Unger turned to lusterware, glazed metallic ceramics that he describes as “the greatest gift the Islamic potter has made to mankind.’’ He also acquired metalware, books, and rock-crystal ornaments, including an exquisite bead in the shape of a crouching hare from Egypt, about 1,000 years old.