The al-Sabah Collection, presented here, covers a chronology of some 6,000+ years. The original collection of art from the Islamic world contains more than 18,000 pieces – collected from every geographic area and dynastic period of the Islamic world through the 19th century CE. This collection also covers every media option – from ceramics to wood. The second, more recent, additions feature some 5,300 objects from the same geographic region but created in pre-Islamic periods. It includes pieces in all relevant media from the early Bronze Age through Late Antiquity. In addition, The al-Sabah Collection includes more than 12,000 numismatic objects and more than 15,000 rare and reference books.
The al-Sabah Collection is owned by the Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah family. Founded by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his wife Sheihka Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, the collection has grown in size and influence since Sheikh Nasser bought the first object in 1975.
Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah (1948-2020) was the collector. His affinity for beauty and fascination with his cultural heritage drove him to search for, acquire and preserve objects that captured moments in history and traditions of the Islamic world. His natural curiousity led him to study the objects; their history, the techniques and technologies of their creation, and the influences that impacted their development and the influences that the objects had on the arts that followed.
In addition to being a collector and preservationist, Sheikh Nasser was a dedicated civil servant, reformer, and entrepreneur. His commitment to Kuwait and all the communities therein led to his involvement in cultural activities, humanitarian projects and development enterprises with the potential to benefit the residents of Kuwait – from the immigrant working to give his/her family a better life to Kuwaitis eager for opportunities to build a successful country. His work on the Silk Road Project and Kuwait Vision 2035, are just two of the efforts that benefitted from his active participation, as a civil servant and a private citizen, in the advancement of Kuwait.
Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah is the director general of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI), a cultural organization, under the auspicies of the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters, which is inspired by the private collection of Islamic art created in 1975 and fostered by her husband Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah and herself. Today, the al-Sabah Collection includes more than 30,000 objects of art created in countries from Spain to China, from the 4th millennium BCE- l9th century CE.
While the art remains the cornerstone of the DAI, under the guardianship of Sheikha Hussa, the organisation has grown into a dynamic entity promoting arts, culture and education. She is clearly driven by the ability of the art to open people’s minds as well as their eyes to the differences in cultures, allowing each to more fully appreciate the other.
In addition, Sheikha Hussa feels a very real sense of responsibility to reach communities in both the Islamic world and beyond. This she accomplishes through participation in archaeological excavations, international conferences, publications, lectures and a vibrant cultural programme at home in Kuwait..
With a special interest in the preservation of indigenous architecture, she is working to ensure that traditional buildings are protected and restored to the original design. At present, Sheikha Hussa is actively involved in projects in Damascus, Aleppo, Muharraq, and Cairo.
Finaly, she serves as an Honorary Trustee on the Boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (TX). In addition, she served as member of the ALIPH Foundation Board( non-governmental organization for the protection of heritage in areas of military conflicts), Geneva, and on the Corporation Visiting Committee for the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, where she is now a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council, School of Architecture and Planning. Recently, she was named a Board Trustee for Egypt’s newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, Fustat.
Director General, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah 1983 – present
Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI) is the institution created by the state of Kuwait, under the auspicies of the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters, to manage The al-Sabah Collection of art from the Islamic world. In addition to work directly related to the collection, DAI is also actively involved in several community and professional education and cultural awareness programmes, which includes an annual lecture series, the development and maintenance of a reference library and the production and distribution of a wide array of publications.
The annual lecture series, in its 26th season, features lectures by prominent scholars on various topics related to Islamic history, including thought, art, archaeology and architecture, and is considered to be a focal point for historians and other academics. The DAI sponsors archaeological excavations, including one in Upper Egypt, Bahnassa, and another at Tur Sinai, both of which have yielded finds that date to the Fatimid period. In addition, DAI also offers conservation training. Implemented in conjunction with the UNDP and a corps of professional conservators, the programme provides appropriately educated young Kuwaitis with the opportunity to learn the necessary skills to preserve and protect valuable pieces of their heritage. Furthermore, the DAI opened the Amricani Cultural Centre in 2nd November 2011. The centre serves as a training museum and includes a 200-seat theatre, two exhibitions, a conservation lab, an education wing, and temporary exhibition space. DAI representatives have taken on a leadership role in the restoration/ renovation of the Kuwait National Museum, located within the Qibla Cultural District.
Co-owner, The al-Sabah Collection 1975 – present
With her late husband, late Sheikh Nasser Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, former Minister of Defence and elder son of the 15th Amir of Kuwait (Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah), Sheikha Hussa Sabah Salem al-Sabah, daughter of the 12th Amir of Kuwait (Sheikh Salem Sabah al-Mubarak al-Sabah), formed The al-Sabah Collection which is considered by many scholars to be among the most important collections of art from the Islamic world. The collection includes more than 30,000 objects of art of different media from the Bronze Age to the 19th century, covering all historical periods and geographical regions of the Islamic world. On loan to the State of Kuwait since 1983, under the auspices of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, objects from the collection have been and, after the rehabilitation is complete, will be again on display at the Kuwait National Museum.
• Decorated by the order of His Majesty King Philippe of Belgium, the COMMANDEUR DE L’ORDRE DE LA COURONNE, as a recognition of cultural contribution. (February 2021)
• Middle East Institute’s “Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence” The Middle East Institute Annual Awards Banquet Washington DC, USA (2017)
• Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IESCO) in honour of Kuwait Capital of Islamic Culture (2016)
• CHEVALIER DE L’ORDRE DES ARTS ET DES LETTRES, LA MINISTRE DE LA CULTURE ET DE LA COMMUNICATION, République Française (2013)
• Pioneer in Archaeological Awareness, 9th General Meeting, Arab Archaeology Union, Cairo, Egypt (11 November 2006)
• Member, Dean’s Advisory Council, School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA (2021 – present)
• Member, Board of Trustees of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations, Egypt. (2021 – present)
• Chair, Qibla Cultural District Board, Kuwait (2019 – ongoing)
• Member, Museum of Fine Art, Houston Board of Trustees, Houston TX, USA (2019 – ongoing)
• Member, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Board of Trustees, New York, NY USA (2011 – ongoing)
• Member, Australian College of Kuwait (ACK) Board of Trustees, Kuwait (2005 – ongoing)
• Kuwait Representative, ALIPH (International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas) Foundation Board, Switzerland (2017 – 2021)
• Presidential Nominee, Corporation Visiting Committee, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT), Boston, MA USA (2016 – 2020)
• Member, The Kuwait University Council, Kuwait (2010 – 2019)
• Former Co-chair, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Advisory Board, Kuwait (2014 – 2015)
• Former Member, Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Kuwait (2011 – 2014)
• Member of Board of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, Kuwait (2005 – 2007)
• Head of Kuwait Information Centre in Damascus, Syria during the occupation of Kuwait (1990-91)
• Former Member of Advisory Cultural Committee of I’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France (1990)
• Former Member of Steering Committee of Islamic Research Centre for History, Arts and Culture in Istanbul, Turkey (1986 – 1992)
Guest speaker and/or participant in international conferences
• Panel: “Face to Face-Ministers and Private Sector CEOs: How Tourism and Leisure Lead to a Beautiful Life”, UN World Travel Organisation, Global Tourism Economy Forum, Macau, China (14 October 2019)
• Panel: “Why Do We Gain When Investing in Culture”, Investing in Culture: Business and Social Impact Conference, (Thinkers and Doers) Bahrain Manama, Bahrain (19 January 2016)
• Speaker: Be astounded; Be astounding: Journeys in the museum world, American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference, Washington, DC, USA (18 May 2016)
• Speaker: Art: A Kuwaiti Experience Connecting Cultures, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA (5 November 2016)
• Participant: Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, Barcelona, Spain (22 – 23 July 2015)
• Participant: All Civilization n Service of Humanity, Manama, Bahrain (5-7 May 2014)
• Speaker: ‘Collecting Memories: A Collection of Art as an Imprint of a Civilazation”, TEDx Rome, Rome, Italy (19 April 2013)
• Speaker: “The role of Cultural Diplomacy in Building Bridges Between Cultures”, AWARE / IOM Conference at UNDP, Kuwait (3-4 December 2012)
• Participant: Science Po, Kuwait Program, Paris, France (2011)
• Participant: “Making Things Speak” objects, commodities, & Societies in Historical perspective at Martin-Gropius -Bau, Berlin- Germany (2011)
• Speaker: “From Private to Public: The Metamorphosis of the al-Sabah Collection”, Bard Graduate Center, New York, USA (2008)
• Speaker: “From Private to Public: The Metamorphosis of the al-Sabah Collection”, Historians of Islamic Art Association, Pennsylvania, USA (2008)
• Participant: “Korean-Arab Relations”, International Conference to Launch the Korea-Arab Society, Seoul, Korea (2008)
• Participant: “Religions and the Alliance of Civilizations: Advancing Shared Securtity”, World Conference of Religions for Peace, Madrid, Spain (2008)
• Speaker: “The Importance of Cultural Diversity”, UNESCO Conference, Kuwait (2007)
• Speaker: “Paths and Pitfalls of Interreligious Understanding”, Salzburg Trilogue (2007)
• Participant: 10th World Federation of Friends of Museums Conference, “New Century New Museums: New Friends”,Sydney, Australia (13 – 17 September 1999)
• Speaker: “Formation of an Islamic Art Collection: the Kuwaiti Experience”, Sotheby’s Geneva, Switzerland (1998)
• “Speaker: Metamorphosis of Private Collection into Public Institution” at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (1998)
• Speaker: “Islamic Art in War and Peace”, for the 3rd AMAR-UNESCO conference, European and Islamic Dialogue: a Permanent Space or Dialogue (March 5-7 1997) at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France (1997)
• Speaker: “Islamic Art in War and Peace”, Kuwait Cultural Centre, London, UK (1996)
• Speaker: “Artistic Genesis in Wood and Stone: Objects from the Kuwait Museum of Islamic Art”, American University of Beirut, Lebanon (1996)
• Speaker: “The Enigma of the Three Emeralds”, British Embassy, Kuwait (1994)
• Speaker: “The Story of a Door”, at Accademia Delle Arti Del Disegno, Florence, Italy (1994)
• Speaker: “My Favorite Object”, British Council, Kuwait (1993)
Support of archaeological excavations
• Japanese-Kuwaiti joint excavation in the Raya/al-Tur area, Sinai Peninsula in cooperation with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (2002 – 2008)
• Excavation of Islamic site in Bahnasa, Upper Egypt, in cooperation with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) (1985 – 1987)
Conservation and preservation of traditional architecture, including
• Kuwait National Museum (KNM) at Qibla Cultural District
• Ferney Voltaire historic home (2000)
• Egypt: Khudives period house located behind al-Azhar Mosque, old Cairo.
• Aleppo: Jumblatt House, a 17th Century palace (preparatory studies began 1997). Restoration of an adjacent house to the palace.(1998)
• Damascus: Old stone and mud houses located in the area adjacent to the Umayyad Mosque (1996)
• Kuwait: American Mission Hospital buildings located near the Parliament building. This project was begun in 1995 and is being managed in cooperation with the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters. Opened in 2011.
• Bahrain: Muharraq-mud house with traditional Bahraini architectural elements (1988)
The al-Sabah Collection Overview
The story of The al-Sabah Collection starts in the 1960’s, when Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah was a student in Jerusalem. While in that ever-lasting city, he developed an appreciation for the superb works of craftsmen and artisans of early Islamic societies. However, not until 1975, was Nasser able to acquire an art object originating in his culture. it happened to be a mid-14th century enamelled glass vase
displayed on a shelf in Ahuan Gallery, a London art gallery owned by Oliver Hoare and David Sulzberger. It was the first item to catch his eye and fire his imagination. From this one single item a random, orderless collection grew, as did a long-term friendship with fellow collector Jassim Yousef al-Homaidhi.
Soon, what started as a private hobby, grew into a full-fledged museum! This transition took place in 1983 when the private al-Sabah Collection was moved from home to the largest building of the Kuwait National Museum compound and henceforth became to be known as Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI). The collection remained there until the museum was destroyed during the Iraqi invasion in August 1990.
But before that, another museum was being planned. Both Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussa had reached the conclusion that the collection had too many stories to tell to be held in a private residence. In 1982, celebrated architect Hassan Fathi, known for embracing vernacular architecture, was asked to design a private museum for their collection. The couple was prepared to build a first class museum with the sole intent of providing residents of Kuwait, visitors and scholars the opportunity to explore the beauty of art from the Islamic world. Their museum would be the 1st Islamic art museum in the Gulf
About the same time, UNESCO was working with the Kuwait Government to identify the foundation objects for the new National Museum. Experts from UNESCO surveyed the three known, private collections in Kuwait: Jassim Yousef al-Homaidhi’s collection, Tareq Syed and Jehan Rajab’s collection, and Nasser al-Sabah’s collection. While all three were recognised as outstanding, containing objects that deserved to be share with a larger audience, the organisation recommended that the government approach Nasser and Hussa. Please, click here for see UNESCO report. The recommendation was based largely on the depth and variety of media, dynasties and geographies included in their most comprehensive collection.
Despite progress on creating a dedicated museum, the pair readily agreed to the government’s request and stopped all activities related to their private museum. To Sheikh Nasser, the loan was a continuation of his efforts to enhance the quality of life in Kuwait and promote the region’s culture – in and outside the country. A multi-faceted loan agreement was reached, with Nasser and Hussa loaning objects to the museum free of charge and the government agreeing to provide appropriate premises and qualified staff. Please, click here for see Contract 1983. It is interesting to note that while the couple immediately began taking the necessary steps to convert parts of their private collection to an exhibition in the time for the opening of the Kuwait National Museum in Februay 1983, the actual agreement wasn’t signed until well after the museum opened. In 2000, the contract was renewed with a slightly modified terms. Please, click here for see Contract 2000.
A new phase of the collection evolved in the decades that followed, as Sheikh Nasser began to explore the art motifs, techniques and trends that became “Islamic art” from the late 7th century CE. Working in reverse chronology, objects from Late Antiquity (the transition period following the dawn of Islam), then Hellenistic art created outside Greece captured his attention. Ever inquisitive, he was not content to stop there. Instead he reached back even further, collecting Iron Age objects and ultimately Bronze Age objects.
Today, the collection includes more than 30,000 objects from the 4th millennium BCE through the 19th century CE. The Kuwait National Museum, destroyed during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, is being rehabilitated and expanded to allow greater diversity in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah galleries. In addition, objects from the collection are available to viewing at the Amricani Cultural Centre in Kuwait, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and on loans to museums and cultural institutions around the world.
DAI, The al-Sabah Collection and the Iraqi Invasion (2 August 1990)
In September 1990, six weeks after Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Kuwait, it ordered the systematic removal of all objects from the Kuwait National Museum, including The al-Sabah Collection that was displayed in Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah. The order required that the items be shipped to Baghdad, where they were stored in the Iraq Museum. All the DAI property on the grounds, including the research library, were sent to Iraq. The one exception was a pair of delicately carved 14th century wooden doors from Fez, Morocco. Unable to remove the doors, they were left in the building and destroyed when Iraqi troops set the museum ablaze as they retreated from the country.
The regime agreed to return the objects as part of the UN resolution ending the war. Eventually, a team of experts, consisting of Katie Marsh, the representative of The al-Sabah Collection, Manuel Keene, the Collection’s curator; Kirsty Norman, conservator; Robert Skelton, former keeper of Indian art at the Victoria and Albert museum, and a team of professional art packers from London, joined UN representatives in Baghdad to implement the recovery process.
Most of the items transported to Baghdad were recovered, though many were damaged – some beyond repair. However, 59 artifacts remain missing, including three large emeralds, jeweled objects, and rare carpets
While most of the Collection was recovered, some of its most precious items remained missing and were thought to have been lost forever.
Fortunately this was not to be quite the case. When a jewel-studded Mughal dagger from the Collection made a sudden appearance in the October, 1996 sale catalogue of Sotheby’s, a prestigious London auction house, the staff of the Dar al Athar al-lslamiyyah spotted it and requested that Sotheby’s withdraw the dagger from the sale. After examining the documentation presented, this was done immediately.
The recovery of the Mughal dagger launched a fiery debate as to whether the missing pieces from the Al-Sabah Collection were, in fact, not still intact in Baghdad, and being used for Iraqi gain. From the beginning of the occupation of Kuwait, auction houses, collectors and museums throughout the world had been on the watch for such objects.
It continues to remain a source of concern to Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussah that the regime in Baghdad might allow these stolen art objects to fall into the hands of the many unscrupulous dealers who feed the art collections of private individuals.