Calouste Gulbenkian was born in Scutari (now Üsküdar), Istanbul on 23 March 1869, the son of Sarkis and Dirouhie Gulbenkian, members of an illustrious Armenian family whose origins date back to the fourth century. Their ancestors were the Princes of Rechduni, who owned lands south of Lake Van, in Armenia. The Rechduni settled in Caesareia, Cappadocia, one of the earliest centres of Eastern Christianity, in the eleventh century, when King Senekerim of Vaspurakan was on the throne. They adopted the family name Vart Badrik, a Byzantine noble title, replacing it with the Turkish form Gulbenkian when the Ottomans came to power in the seventeenth century. During the four hundred years that the family stayed in Cappadocia, every generation was involved in patronage of the arts and in welfare work.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian started his studies in Kadikoy (Calcedonia), first at the Aramyan-Uncuyan school and then at St. Joseph, the French school. He then continued his studies in Europe, first in Marseille, where he perfected his French before gaining a degree in engineering (with distinction) from King’s College London in 1887. In 1891, aged just 22, Calouste Gulbenkian travelled through Transcaucasia and visited the oil fields in Baku. This journey led him to write “La Transcaucasie et la Péninsule d’Apchéron – Souvenirs de Voyage” and several articles for Revue des Deux Mondes, including “Le pétrole, source d’énergie”. These articles caught the attention of the Ottoman government’s Ministry of Mines, which requested the young Gulbenkian to draw up a report on the Ottoman Empire’s oil resources, especially those in Mesopotamia.
At a time when the strategic and economic significance of the Middle East was completely unknown, Gulbenkian foresaw the importance of the oil reserves and had the vision to make both international investors and the Ottoman government realise the need for rational organisation to exploit this resource. He participated in founding the Royal Dutch Shell Group, made contact with the American and Russian oil industries and launched the industry in the Persian Gulf. Alongside his decisive role at the highest levels in the worlds of oil and finance, Gulbenkian also gained considerable importance in political issues. He started by working on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, when he was appointed the financial advisor to the Ottoman embassies in Paris in London in 1898. Calouste Gulbenkian also enjoyed British citizenship, which enabled him to combine the two countries’ interests, especially given the enormous influence that Britain had in the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, Gulbenkian was appointed as the Persian trade and diplomatic representative in Paris, a post he held for 24 years. France is still indebted to him for his tireless efforts to protect the country’s oil interests. At the end of the war, he also played an important role in the negotiations that ultimately led to the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923).
In 1910, following the Young Turk Revolution (1908), the National Bank of Turkey was set up to stimulate the country’s economic development. Calouste Gulbenkian, already the financial and economic advisor to the Ottoman embassies in London and Paris, was appointed as a consultant to the bank and began negotiations with German interests that were making determined efforts to enter the Ottoman Empire and gain the concession of mineral rights. Consequently, the Turkish Petroleum Company (T.P.C.) was founded in 1912 to exploit the exceptionally rich oil fields in Iraq. Royal Dutch Shell held a 25% stake in the company, the National Bank of Turkey owned 35% and German interests held a further 25%, while the remaining 15% were in the hands of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian. Negotiations in 1913-14 between the oil producers and the various financial interests involved led to the reorganisation of the Turkish Petroleum Company, with the approval of the British, Turkish and German governments. The quotas were divided among the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now British Petroleum), the Royal Dutch Shell Group and the German interests, with Gulbenkian agreeing to reduce his share from 15% to 5% so as to help conclude the negotiations. One of the outcomes of World War I was the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Once again Calouste Gulbenkian led the negotiations between T.P.C. and the Iraqi government, which led to T.P.C. being granted a concession in 1925. But at that time a new player was interested on the game: the USA. Calouste Gulbenkian played again a decisive role in the negotiations ensuing to the “Red Line Agreement” dated 1928, signed by Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Royal Dutch Shell Group, Compagnie Française des Pétroles and the Near East Development Corporation (a consortium of the leading American oil companies). On the basis of a “Red Line” drawn by Mr Calouste Gulbenkian on the map of the former Ottoman Empire it was possible to conciliate the petroleum interests of the major playing powers on the field. Subsequently, Mr. Calouste Gulbenkian succeeded to hold 5% of the shareholding of the newly renamed Iraq Petroleum Co. Ltd., (former Turkish Petroleum Company), a stake from which he owes his famous nickname Mr Five Percent.
Calouste Gulbenkian revealed his passion for art at an early age. Above all, it was the beauty of the objects that appealed to him. Throughout his life, he assembled an eclectic and unique collection that was influenced by his travels and his personal taste, and sometimes involved lengthy and complex negotiations with the leading experts and specialist dealers. His collection now totals over 6,000 pieces, whose time-span ranges from antiquity until the early twentieth century. His attachment to the pieces that he acquired was so strong that he even considered them as his “children”. Calouste Gulbenkian’s collection of paintings includes works by Bouts, Van de Weyden, Lochner, Cima de Conegliano, Carpaccio, Rubens, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Guardi, Gainsborough, Romney, Lawrence, Fragonard, Corot, Renoir, Nattier, Boucher, Manet, Degas and Monet. The sculpture section features the marble original of Houdon’s famous Diana, which had belonged to Catherine of Russia and which Gulbenkian purchased from the Hermitage Museum in 1930. The collection grew over the years. The Paris collection was divided for security reasons and part was sent to London. In 1936, the collection of Egyptian art was entrusted to the care of the British Museum while the finest paintings went to the National Gallery. Later, in 1948 and 1950, the same works would be sent on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The delicate process of moving these pieces involved extremely detailed planning and great risk. Gulbenkian, who had settled in Lisbon in 1942, had but one dream: to bring all the pieces he owned under one roof. The idea of a museum was born. Thanks to the support of the French government and the conditions of the loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, this dream would become a reality. In 1960, the entire collection was brought to Portugal, where it was exhibited at the Palace of the Marquises of Pombal (Oeiras) from 1965 to 1969. Only fourteen years after the death of this illustrious collector was his wish ultimately fulfilled, when the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum was opened in Lisbon.
Calouste Gulbenkian was a generous philanthropist who always strove to help the less fortunate. He was particularly concerned with protecting Armenian communities and acted as a benefactor of the Armenian Patriarchy in Jerusalem, to which he donated a library. A devout member of the Armenian Church, he had the church of St. Sarkis, dedicated to the memory of his parents, built in London. In 1930, on the death of Boghos Nubar Pacha, the founder of the General Union of Armenian Welfare, Gulbenkian took his place at the head of this welfare institution. However, he resigned two years later because of several political pressures that impeded his work. His will (1953) is a clear statement of his philanthropic nature, as he left much of his fortune to the Foundation that he wished to create. The statutory aims of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – one of the twelve largest foundations in the world – are to work in the fields of welfare, the arts, education and science.
At the invitation of the Portuguese ambassador in France, Calouste Gulbenkian came to Portugal for the first time in April 1942, at the height of World War II. The visit was a revelation and he would return in search of the peace that could not then be found in the rest of Europe. He would live at the Hotel Aviz, Lisbon, for thirteen years. His will (18 June 1953) left significant legacies to his children, established lifetime pensions for other relatives and for his long-term collaborators, and created a foundation that would bear his name and that inherited the rest of his fortune. The fact that he chose Lisbon as the home for the foundation and that he created it under Portuguese law demonstrates his love for the country that took him in at a critical moment in Europe’s history. He died in Lisbon on 20 July 1955, aged 86.
Based on biography available on the website of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.