Calouste Gulbenkian


Born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) the son of an Armenian banker and oil trader, Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) would become the wealthiest and most successful oil broker in the Western World and the guardian of an historic collection of art, antiquities and sculpture. Gulbenkian was known as ‘Mr Five Per Cent’ because that was the seemingly modest percentage he insisted on retaining as payment for brokering deals with the British, French, German and Turkish governments for foreign rights to drill for oil in unchartered territories such as Iraq.

Gulbenkian was educated at King’s College, London, where he studied petroleum engineering. He visited Russia to study the oil business at Baku before fleeing the Ottoman Empire in 1896 in the aftermath of the Hamidian Massacres when an estimated 300,000 Armenians were murdered in an indiscriminate anti-Christian pogrom. Gulbenkian relocated to Cairo where he went into business with Armenian oil magnate Alexander Mantashev and formed an alliance with banking heir Sir Evelyn Baring.

In 1902 Gulbenkian moved to London and took British citizenship. In 1907 he was the broker who helped to arrange a merger between Royal Dutch Petroleum and Shell Oil. This was the first of his ‘five per cent’ deals. In 1912 Gulbenkian was the fixer who negotiated the foundation of the Turkish Petroleum Company and developed successful oil exploration in Iraq. It was Gulbenkian who put together the oil alliance between the British, Dutch, German and Ottoman empires and held it together through two World Wars.

When World War One ended, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and Iraq became a British protectorate. Oil reserves were discovered at Baba Gurgu and the Pasha of Iraq gave the control of the entire concession to Gulbenkian who formed the Iraq Petroleum Company. Gulbenkian retained five per cent saying ‘better a small piece of a big pie than a big piece of a small one’.

Gulbenkian divided his time between London and Paris where he filled his palatial houses with a museum-quality collection of antiquities, old masters, coins, illuminated books and classical sculptures. He displayed his sculpture collection in his four-storey house on the Avenue d’Iena in Paris. In 1936 Gulbenkian lent thirty of his finest paintings to London’s National Gallery with a view to bequeathing them to his adopted country. He loaned his Egyptian artefacts to the British Museum intending to make a similar bequest.

Gulbenkian was in Paris when the Second World War was declared. When the French government fled the Nazi invasion and evacuated Paris for Vichy, he followed them and as a consequence was temporarily declared an enemy alien by the British government. His UK oil assets were sequested and his citizenship was revoked. Though he was compensated after the war, Gulbenkian never forgave the British. In 1942 he had relocated to Lisbon and lived there for the rest of his life.

At the time of his death in 1955, Gulbenkian’s fortune was estimated at $840 million: a monumental sum in the mid-20th century. Instead of willing his collections to his children, Gulbenkian left instruction for a foundation to be established in his name. Assets included a collection of masterpieces painted by the greats of 18th, 19th and 20th century art: Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Nattier, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Monet.

Gulbenkian called the favourite pieces in his collection his children; a particular favourite being Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of Diana that had belonged to Catherine the Great and was bought from the Hermitage Museum. Not that Gulbenkian wasn’t as ruthless with his collection as he was in the oil business. He sold pieces that had fallen out of favour at the top of the market to make new acquisitions.

In 1960 Gulbenkian’s collection was brought to Lisbon and displayed in the Palace of the Marquise of Pimbel. A purpose built museum for the Gulbenkian Foundation was constructed in 1969. The British government’s decision to declare Gulbenkian an enemy alien cost our national galleries dear. The French government also dropped the ball after advanced negotiations to repatriate treasures he had bought from the royal collections in the palace of Versailles and Fontainebleu. Today the Gulbenkian Foundation is one of Lisbon’s primary cultural centres and one of the world’s most impressive museum collections amassed by a single connoisseur.

The Gulbenkian fortune is still held in a portfolio of equities, bonds and interests in Middle Eastern oil said to be worth 2.9 billion Euros in 2010. The Foundation’s annual budget is over 100 million Euros. As proof of Calouste Gulbenkian’s foresight, the causes closest to his heart are now more prescient than ever: ‘bringing together people of different cultures, ethnicities and religions; and the relationship between man and the environment’. With this in mind, the Gulbenkian Foundation launched an international prize in the founder’s honour awarded to ‘the institution that does the most to further one of these aims’.

(c) James Sherwood

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