Calouste Gulbenkian

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Calouste Gulbenkian
Born Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian
(1869-03-23)March 23, 1869
Scutari, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (present-day Üsküdar, Istanbul, Turkey)
Died July 20, 1955(1955-07-20) (aged 86)
Lisbon, Portugal
Resting place St. Sarkis Armenian Church, London
Ethnicity Armenian
Citizenship British (from 1902)
Alma mater King's College London
Occupation Petroleum engineer
Years active 1895–1955
Organization Turkish Petroleum Company
Iraq Petroleum Company
Religion Armenian Apostolic
Spouse(s) Nevarte Essayan
Children Nubar Sarkis (1896–1972)
Rita Sivarte (1900–1977)
Parent(s) Sarkis and Dirouhie Gulbenkian
Signature Calouste Gulbenkian.jpg

Calouste Gulbenkian (/kæˈlst ɡʊlˈbɛŋkiən/, Western Armenian: Գալուստ Կիւլպէնկեան; 23 March 1869 – 20 July 1955) was a British businessman and philanthropist of Armenian origin. He played a major role in making the petroleum reserves of the Middle East available to Western development and is credited with being the first person to exploit Iraqi oil.[1] Gulbenkian travelled extensively and lived in a number of cities including Constantinople, London, Paris, and Lisbon.

Throughout his life, Gulbenkian was involved with many philanthropic activities including the establishment of schools, hospitals, and churches. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a private foundation based in Portugal, was started at his bequest in 1956 and continues to promote arts, charity, education, and science throughout the world. It is now among the largest foundations in Europe.[2] By the end of his life he had become one of the world's wealthiest individuals and his art acquisitions one of the greatest private collections.[3][4][5][6]


Family background[edit]

Gulbenkian's family is believed to be descendants of the Rshtunis, an Armenian noble family centered around Lake Van in the fourth century AD.[7] In the 11th century, the Rshtunis settled in Kayseri, taking the name Vart Badrik, a Byzantine noble title. With the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, the Turkish equivalent of the name, Gülbenk, was adopted. The family had established themselves in the town of Talas and lived in the region until the mid-1800s, when they ultimately moved to Constantinople. Their property in Talas was ultimately confiscated and is currently owned by the Turkish government.[8]

By 1860, his father Sarkis Gulbenkian was an Armenian oil importer/exporter already heavily involved in the oil industry. He was an owner of several oil fields in the Caucasus, mainly in Baku, and was a representative of Alexander Mantashev's oil company.[9] Sarkis Gulbenkian also provided oil to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.[10] During Hagop Pasha's Directorship, and, subsequently, Ministry of the Privy Treasury under Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1879, Sarkis acquired the lucrative collection of taxes for the Privy Purse of Mesopotamia.[11]

Calouste Gulbenkian at age three

Early life[edit]

Calouste Gulbenkian was born on 23 March 1869 in Scutari (Üsküdar), in the Ottoman Empire capital Constantinople (now Istanbul).[9] He received his early education at Aramyan-Uncuyan, a local Armenian school. He then attended the Lycée Saint-Joseph French school and continued his studies at Robert College. These studies were cut short when he moved to Marseilles at the age of 15 to perfect his French at a high school there.[12]

Oil business[edit]

His father sent him to be educated at King's College London, where he studied petroleum engineering, and then to examine the Russian oil industry at Baku.[13] He graduated in 1887 at the age of 18 with a first class degree in engineering and applied sciences.[14] A year later, he went to Baku to further his knowledge on the oil industry.[15] Gulbenkian later wrote an article entitled La Transcaucasie et la péninsule d'Apchéron; souvenirs de voyage (English: Transcaucasia and the Apcheron Peninsula – Memoirs of a Journey) which appeared in the Revue des deux Mondes, a French language monthly literary and cultural affairs magazine. The article described his travels to Baku and the state of the oil industry in the region. It was eventually published as a book in 1891 in Paris.[16]

Gulbenkian in 1889 at the age of 20, newly graduated from King's College

After Hagop Pasha's appointment as the Minister of Finance in 1887, Hagop Pasha had Calouste prepare an oil survey of Mesopotamia.[11] To develop the oil survey, Calouste merely read travel books and interviewed railroad engineers that were surveying and building a railway line in Mesopotamia.[11] Gulbenkian's oil survey led Hagop Pasha to believe that vast oil deposits lay in Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq), to acquire tracts of land for the Sultan's oil reserves, and to establish the Ottoman oil industry in Mesopotamia.[11] Hagop Pasha thanked Gulbenkian and said, "My boy, you ought to be very proud because you served the Treasury of His Majesty, and to serve His Majesty's Treasury is to serve your conscience."[11]

By 1895, he started his oil operation business.[11] He had to return to the Ottoman Empire, but in 1896, Gulbenkian and his family fled the empire due to the Hamidian massacres of Armenians.[16][17] They ended up in Egypt, where Gulbenkian met Alexander Mantashev, a prominent Armenian oil magnate and philanthropist. Mantashev introduced Gulbenkian to influential contacts in Cairo.[18] These new acquaintances included Sir Evelyn Baring.[19] Still in his twenties, Gulbenkian moved to London in 1897 where he arranged deals in the oil business.[20] He became a naturalised British citizen in 1902. In 1907, he helped arrange the merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum Company with "Shell" Transport and Trading Company Ltd. Gulbenkian emerged as a major shareholder of the newly formed company, Royal Dutch/Shell.[21] His habit of retaining five percent of the shares of the oil companies he developed earned him the nickname "Mr. Five Percent".[22]

After the coup d'etat of Abdul Hamid II in 1909, Gulbenkian became a financial and economic adviser to the Turkish embassies in London and Paris, and later, chief financial advisory to the Turkish government.[11] He was a member of a British technical team to Turkey and, later, a director of the National Bank of Turkey, which was established to support British designs.[11]

In 1912 Gulbenkian was the driving force behind the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC)—a consortium of the largest European oil companies aimed at cooperatively procuring oil exploration and development rights in the Ottoman territory of Mesopotamia, while excluding other interests. The German interests would be limited to a 25% share, with a 35% for the British, and the remaining for Gulbenkian to choose.[11] So, he gave Royal Dutch Shell 25% and kept 15% for himself as "the conceiver, the founder, and the artisan of the Turkish Petroleum combine."[11] A promise of these rights was made to the TPC, but the onset of World War I interrupted their efforts. At first, the British Foreign Office supported the d'Arcy group to gain a share and replace Calouste's share, but Gulbenkian worked closely with French concerns, arranged for the French to receive the German's share as part of the spoils of victory, and, in return, the French protected his interest.[11]

Gulbenkian's wedding to Nevarte Essayan in London in 1892

During the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the war, most of Ottoman Syria came under French mandate and most of Ottoman Mesopotamia came under British mandate. Heated and prolonged negotiations ensued regarding which companies could invest in the Turkish Petroleum Company. The TPC was granted exclusive oil exploration rights to Mesopotamia in 1925. The discovery of a large oil reserve at Baba Gurgur provided the impetus to conclude negotiations and in July 1928 an agreement, called the "Red Line Agreement", was signed which determined which oil companies could invest in TPC and reserved 5% of the shares for Gulbenkian.[23] The name of the company was changed to the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929. The Pasha had actually given Gulbenkian the entire Iraqi oil concession. Gulbenkian, however, saw advantage in divesting the vast majority of his concession so that corporations would be able to develop the whole. Gulbenkian grew wealthy on the remainder. He reputedly said, "Better a small piece of a big pie, than a big piece of a small one."[24]

In 1938, before the beginning of the Second World War, Gulbenkian incorporated a Panamanian company to hold his assets in the oil industry.[21] From this "Participations and Explorations Corporation" came the "Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation", now a subsidiary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon.

Art collection[edit]

Gulbenkian amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his Paris house. An art expert said in a 1950 issue of Life magazine that "Never in modern history has one man owned so much."[11] His four-story, three-basement house on Avenue d'Iéna was said to be crammed with art, a situation ameliorated in 1936 when he lent thirty paintings to the National Gallery, London and his Egyptian sculpture to the British Museum.[6]

The home of Calouste Gulbenkian on 51 Avenue d'Iéna in Paris, where he kept most of his art

Throughout his lifetime, Gulbenkian managed to collect over 6,400 pieces of art.[25] The collection includes objects from antiquity to the 20th century. Some of the works in the collection were bought during the Soviet sale of Hermitage paintings.[5]

While Gulbenkian's art collection may be found in many museum across the world, most of his art is exhibited at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Portugal. The museum was founded according to his will, in order to accommodate and display his collection, now belonging to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Of the roughly 6,000 items in the museum's collections, a selection of around 1000 is on permanent display.[26]


Throughout his life, Gulbenkian donated large sums of money to churches, scholarships, schools, and hospitals. Many of his donations were to Armenian foundations and establishments. He required that proceeds from his 5% share of profits from oil should go to Armenian families. He also demanded that 5% of his workers in his oil production for the Iraq Petroleum Company should be of Armenian descent.[27]

St Sarkis Armenian Church, which Gulbenkian financed. He is buried on its grounds.

He established the St Sarkis Armenian church in Kensington, a suburb in London, England. The church was built in 1922–23 as a memorial to his parents, and the architect was Arthur Davis.[28][29] Gulbenkian wanted to provide "spiritual comfort" to the Armenian community and a place of gathering for "dispersed Armenians," according to a message written by Gulbenkian to the Catholicos of All Armenians.[30]

In 1929, he was the chief benefactor to the establishment of an extensive library at the St. James Cathedral, the principal church of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The library is called the Gulbenkian Library and contains more than 100,000 books.[31]

Among many of his significant donations was to the Surp Pırgiç Armenian Hospital located in Istanbul. A large property called the Selamet Han was donated to the Surp Pırgiç foundation in 1954.[32] The property was confiscated by the state in 1974, but returned to the foundation in 2011.[33] He also helped establish a nurses' home at the hospital after selling his wife's jewelry.[23]

He was president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) from 1930–1932, resigning as a result of a smear campaign by Soviet Armenia, an Armenian newspaper based in Armenia SSR.[23] He was also a major benefactor of Nubarashen and Nor Kesaria, which were newly founded settlements consisting of refugees from the Armenian Genocide.[34]

Later life and death[edit]

Gulbenkian at Les Enclos, his garden retreat in Deauville.

In 1937, Gulbenkian purchased a property near Deauville and called it Les Enclos.[35] It was a place of repose for him. Nobel prize-winning writer and friend Saint-John Perse nicknamed him the Sage of Les Enclose and remarked in a letter to Gulbenkian that Les Enclos was "the cornerstone of your work, because it is the most alive, the most intimate and sensitive, the best guarded secret for your dreams."[36]

By the onset of the Second World War, having acquired diplomatic immunity as the economic adviser of the Persian legation in Paris, he followed the French government when it fled to Vichy, where he became the minister for Iran.[11] In consequence, he was, despite his links to the UK, temporarily declared an enemy alien by the British Government, and his UK oil assets sequestered, though returned with compensation at the end of the war.[37] He left France in late 1942 for Lisbon and lived there until his death, in a suite at the luxurious Aviz Hotel, on 20 July 1955, aged 86.[38] His wife Nevarte died in 1952 in Paris.[6] They had two children, a son Nubar and a daughter Rita, who would become the wife of Iranian diplomat Kevork Loris Essayan.

He is buried at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in London.

Legacy and fortune[edit]

At the time of his death, Gulbenkian's fortune was estimated at between US$280 million and US$840 million. Undisclosed sums were willed in trust to his descendants; the remainder of his fortune and art collection were willed to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian), with US$400,000[39] to be reserved to restore the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia's mother church, when relations with the Soviet Union permitted.[40] The foundation was to act for charitable, educational, artistic, and scientific purposes, and the named trustees were his long-time friend Baron Radcliffe of Werneth, Lisbon attorney José de Azeredo Perdigão, and his son-in-law Kevork Loris Essayan. In Lisbon the foundation established its headquarters and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian) to display his art collection.

On 28 February 1950, Gulbenkian was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, the highest rank of its kind, by the Portuguese government.[41] In January 2012 it was revealed that Gulbenkian had turned down a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) from King George VI in 1951.[42][43]

Published works[edit]

  • La Transcaucasie et la péninsule d'Apchéron; souvenirs de voyage, Éditeur: Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1891. OCLC 3631961.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2006. p. 817. ISBN 1593394926. 
  2. ^ Anheier, Toepler & List 2010, p. 816.
  3. ^ "Calouste Gulbenkian Dies at 86. One of the Richest Men in the World. Oil Financier, Art Collector Lived in Obscurity, Drove in Rented Automobile.". New York Times. 21 July 1955. 
  4. ^ "Solid Gold Scrooge". Time magazine. 23 July 1958. Retrieved 7 May 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Chilvers 2005, p. 320.
  6. ^ a b c "Calouste Gulbenkian Dies at 86; One of the Richest Men in the World". New York Times. 21 July 1955. p. 23. 
  7. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 11.
  8. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 12.
  9. ^ a b Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 18.
  10. ^ Black 2004, p. 102.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Coughlan, Robert (27 November 1950). "Mystery Billionaire". Life 29 (22): 81–107. ISSN 0024-3019. 
  12. ^ Hewins 1958, p. 13.
  13. ^ Cumming, Robert, ed. (2015). My B.B...: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959. Yale University Press. p. 526. ISBN 0300216068. 
  14. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 20-1.
  15. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 23-4.
  16. ^ a b Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 24.
  17. ^ Campbell 2005, p. 74.
  18. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 24-5.
  19. ^ Campbell 2005, p. 75.
  20. ^ Tugendhat & Hamilton 1975, p. 63.
  21. ^ a b Vassiliou, M.S. (2009). Historical dictionary of the petroleum industry. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. pp. 226–7. ISBN 0810862883. 
  22. ^ Norwich, J. J., & Henson, B. (1987). Mr. Five Percent: The Story of Calouste Gulbenkian. [S.l.]: Home Vision. ISBN 978-0-7800-0755-0, OCLC 31611185.
  23. ^ a b c Conlin, Jonathan (2010). "Philanthropy without borders: Calouste Gulbenkian’s founding vision for the Gulbenkian Foundation" (PDF). Análise Social 45 (195): 277–306. 
  24. ^ Adams, John (2012). In the Trenches: Adventures in Journalism and Public Affairs. iUniverse. p. [1]. ISBN 9781462067831. 
  25. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 44.
  26. ^ "Premises". Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (official website). 
  27. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 49.
  28. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Sarkis (Armenian Church), Iverna Gardens, W8 (1080556)". National Heritage List for England. 
  29. ^ Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert. The London Encyclopaedia (1993 ed.). Macmillan. p. 426. ISBN 0-333-57688-8. 
  30. ^ "St. Sarkis | Armenian Community and Church Council of Great Britain". 11 January 1923. 
  31. ^ "Gulbenkian Library". Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem (official website). 
  32. ^ "The State and not the ECHR, Returns Selamet Han". Sabah. 17 February 2011. 
  33. ^ "Turkey returns Selamet Han to Armenian foundation". Zaman. 18 February 2011. 
  34. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 57.
  35. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 41-2.
  36. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 42-3.
  37. ^ Kumar 2012, p. 113.
  38. ^ Azeredo Perdigão 1969, p. 21.
  39. ^ Corley, Felix (1996). "The Armenian Church Under the Soviet Regime" (PDF). Religion, State & Society (Keston Institute) 24 (1): 25. ISSN 0963-7494. 
  40. ^ "Gulbenkian's Will Sets Up Foundation". New York Times. 23 July 1955. p. 5. 
  41. ^ Academia Portuguesa da História (1980). Anais (in Portuguese). Lisbon. p. 373. 
  42. ^ "Queen's honours: People who have turned them down named" at
  43. ^

Further reading[edit]

For detailed background concerning Gulbenkian and the Red Line Agreement controlling Middle East Oil see

For general background concerning the development of the petroleum industry in the Middle East see

For Gulbenkian as a collector see

External links[edit]

Official websites