Calouste Gulbenkian

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Calouste Gulbenkian
Born 23 March 1869 (1869-03-23)
Üsküdar, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire[1]
Died 20 July 1955 (1955-07-21) (aged 86)
Lisbon, Portugal
Nationality British
Ethnicity Armenian
Occupation Businessman and philanthropist
Spouse(s) Nevarte Essayan
Children Nubar Sarkis (1896–1972), Rita Sivarte (1900–1977)
Parent(s) Sarkis and Dirouhie Gulbenkian
Signature Calouste Gulbenkian.jpg

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (/kæˈlst ˈsɑrkɨz ɡʊlˈbɛŋkiən/, Western Armenian: Գալուստ Սարգիս 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. By the end of his life he had become one of the world's wealthiest individuals and his art acquisitions considered one of the greatest private collections.[2][3]


Calouste Gulbenkian was born in Üsküdar, in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Ottoman Empire, the son of an Armenian oil importer/exporter. 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. In 1896 Gulbenkian fled the Ottoman Empire along with his family, as a result of the Hamidian massacres. 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. These new acquaintances included Sir Evelyn Baring.[4] Still in his twenties, Gulbenkian moved to London where he arranged deals in the oil business. 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. His habit of retaining five percent of the shares of the oil companies he developed earned him the nickname "Mr. Five Percent".[5]

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 Empire territory of Iraq, while excluding other interests. A promise of these rights was made to the TPC, but the onset of World War I interrupted their efforts.

During the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the war, Iraq 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 Iraq 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. 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."[6]

Gulbenkian amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his Paris house. 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. He was president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) from 1930–1932, resigning as a result of a smear campaign by the Soviet Armenian government.[citation needed]

In 1938, before the beginning of the Second World War, Gulbenkian incorporated in Panama a company to hold his assets in the oil industry. It was from this "Participations and Explorations Corporation" which came the name Partex (now called the "Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation" and which is now a subsidiary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon).

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, 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. 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. His Armenian wife died in 1952. They had two children, a son Nubar and a daughter Rita, who would become the wife of Iranian diplomat Kevork Loris Essayan.

St Sarkis Armenian Church, Kensington, which Gulbenkian financed.

He is buried at St. Sarkis Armenian Church, London. Gulbenkian was a sponsor of the church, 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.[7]

At the time of his death in 1955, Gulbenkian's fortune was estimated at between US$280 million and US$840 million. After undisclosed sums 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$300,000–$400,000 to be reserved to restore the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Echmiadzin, Armenia, when relations with the Soviet Union permitted. 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. The Foundation established its headquarters and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian) in Lisbon to display his art collection.

In January 2012 it was revealed that Gulbenkian had turned down a KBE from King George VI in 1951.[8][9]

Published works[edit]

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

See also[edit]


  • "Calouste Gulbenkian Dies at 86; One of the Richest Men in the World: Oil Financier, Art Collector Lived in Obscurity, Drove in Rented Automobile". The New York Times. 21 July 1955, p. 23. (Accessed via ProQuest Historic Newspapers, New York Times (1857–Current file), Document ID 83363695).
  • "Gulbenkian's Will Sets Up Foundation". The New York Times. 23 July 1955, p. 5. (Access via ProQuest Historical Newspapers, New York times (1857–Current file), Document ID 84151580).
  1. ^ Mystery Billionaire, Robert Coughlan, Life, 27 November 1950, 82.
  2. ^ "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. Retrieved 7 May 2009. 
  3. ^ "Solid Gold Scrooge". Time magazine. 23 July 1958. Retrieved 7 May 2009. 
  4. ^ Campbell, Colin John (2005). Oil Crisis. Multi-Science Publishing. p. 75. ISBN 0-906522-39-0. 
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Adams, John (2012). In the Trenches: Adventures in Journalism and Public Affairs. iUniverse. p. 33. ISBN 9781462067831. 
  7. ^ "St. Sarkis | Armenian Community and Church Council of Great Britain". 11 January 1923. Retrieved 22 April 2013. 
  8. ^ "Queen's honours: People who have turned them down named" at
  9. ^

Further reading[edit]

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

  • Black, Edwin. Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2004. ISBN 0-471-67186-X.

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

For Gulbenkian as a collector see

  • Azeredo Perdigão, José de, and Ana Lowndes Marques. Calouste Gulbenkian, Collector. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1979. OCLC 8196712

External links[edit]