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Calouste Gulbenkian

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Title: Calouste Gulbenkian  
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Collection: 1869 Births, 1955 Deaths, Alumni of King's College London, Armenian Art Collectors, Armenian Billionaires, Armenian Businesspeople, Armenian Businesspeople in the Oil Industry, Armenian Philanthropists, British Armenians, British Art Collectors, British Businesspeople, British Philanthropists, Burials in London by Place, Businesspeople in the Oil Industry, Collectors of Asian Art, Ethnic Armenian Businesspeople, Ethnic Armenian Philanthropists, Founders of the Petroleum Industry, Grand Crosses of the Order of Christ (Portugal), Iraqi Armenians, Iraqi Businesspeople, Museum Founders, Ottoman Armenians, Ottoman People, People from Istanbul, People from Üsküdar, People of the Iraq Petroleum Company, Presidents of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, Turkish Armenians
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Calouste Gulbenkian

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

Calouste Gulbenkian (, 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]


  • Biography 1
    • Family background 1.1
    • Early life 1.2
    • Oil business 1.3
    • Art collection 1.4
    • Philanthropy 1.5
    • Later life and death 1.6
  • Legacy and fortune 2
  • Published works 3
  • Gallery 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Family background

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]

Calouste Gulbenkian at age three

Early life

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 perfect his French at a high school there.[11]

Oil business

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.[12] He graduated in 1887 at the age of 18 with a first class degree in engineering and applied sciences.[13] A year later, he went to Baku to further his knowledge on the oil industry.[14] 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.[15]

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

By 1895, he started his oil operation business.[16] 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.[15][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]

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 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.

Gulbenkian's wedding to Nevarte Essayan in London in 1892

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.[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

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."[16] 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

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.[16] 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

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

  • Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
  • Armenian General Benevolent Union
  • Parc des Enclos
Official websites
  • Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian. The Man and his Work by the Gulbenkian Foundation (full view)
  • The Gulbenkians in Jerusalem by the Gulbenkian Foundation (full view)
  • La Transcaucasie et la péninsule d'Apchéron: souvenirs de voyage by Calouste Gulbenkian (full view; in French)
  • In Memoriam Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
  • Martin Essayan on his great-grandfather: Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian
  • Recollections of his Calouste Gulbenkian by his grandson Mikhael Essayan
  • Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a foundation in the world

External links

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

For Gulbenkian as a collector see

  • Blair, John Malcolm. The Control of Oil. New York: Pantheon, 1976. ISBN 0-394-49470-9.
  • Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. ISBN 0-671-50248-4.
  • Sampson, Anthony. The Seven Sisters, the great oil companies and the world they made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. ISBN 0-671-50248-4.

For general background concerning the development of the petroleum industry in the Middle East 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 detailed background concerning Gulbenkian and the Red Line Agreement controlling Middle East Oil see

Further reading

  • Anheier, Helmut K.; Toepler, Stefan; List, Regina, eds. (2010). International encyclopedia of civil society (1. ed.). New York: Springer.  
  • Armenian Communities Department (2010). Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian: The Man and His Work. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 
  • Azeredo Perdigão, José de (1969). Calouste Gulbenkian: Collector. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 
  • Campbell, C.J. (2005). Oil crisis (Repr. ed.). Brentwood, Essex, England: Multi-Science Pub. Co.  
  • Chilvers, Ian (2005). The Oxford dictionary of art (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • Kumar, Ram Narayan (2012). Martyred but not tamed the politics of resistance in the Middle East. New Delhi: SAGE.  
  • Tugendhat, Christopher; Hamilton, Adrian (1975). Oil: The Biggest Business. Eyre Methuen. 
  1. ^ Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2006. p. 817.  
  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.".  
  4. ^ "Solid Gold Scrooge".  
  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. ^ Hewins 1958, p. 13.
  12. ^ Cumming, Robert, ed. (2015). My B.B...: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959. Yale University Press. p. 526.  
  13. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 20-1.
  14. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, pp. 23-4.
  15. ^ a b Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 24.
  16. ^ a b c Coughlan, Robert (27 November 1950). "Mystery Billionaire". Life 29 (22): 81–107.  
  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.  
  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. [2].  
  25. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 44.
  26. ^ "Premises". Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (official website). 
  27. ^ Armenian Communities Department 2010, p. 49.
  28. ^  
  29. ^ Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert. The London Encyclopaedia (1993 ed.). Macmillan. p. 426.  
  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 ( 
  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. ^


See also



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

Published works


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