About collecting he once told a Soviet negotiator, ”You… are a fortunate man not to have this passion which is like a disease.” He was one of the most mysterious men of his era. He was obsessed with privacy and avoided interviews and photographs. Among other assets, he owned five percent of all the oil in Iraq; that although he was an Armenian by birth and thus a subject of the Ottoman Empire, he had become a British citizen, while at the same time he held an Iranian passport.
The Gulbenkian Collection was the greatest art collection in breadth and standard of quality assembled by one person in the twentieth century. Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955 ) was originally thought to have been favorable to have moved his art collection and foundation to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. However, in the midst of the final negotiationsm Gulbenkian passed away, surprising him as much as the skeleton in Holbein’s ”Dance of Death” surprises its victims. True, he was eighty-six, but he had expected a span of life longer than that of his grandfather, who died at 105. The present museum and foundation is in Lisbon.
From 1942 until 1955, Gulbenkian lived in Lisbon at the Aviz Hotel, no longer in existence but once the best in the world, where he occupied an entire floor. Physically, he resembled a fierce bird. Stocky, bald, his walk was considered a hopping trot. His deep-set unblinking eyes were surmounted by exceptionally bushy brows. His aquiline nose increased this hawklike appearance, a resemblance he must have recognized since he once had himself photographed beneath a sculptured Horus, the legendary hawk of Egypt.
Gulbenkian was entirely devoted to aesthetic values. He has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars, but he said this vast sum of money held no basic interest for him. It was the organization he had created, the beautiful structure, the balance of interests,the harmony of economic forces, that gave him joy and satisfaction. His masterpiece was the Iraq Petroleum Company. It was as architecturally designed, as faultless in its composition, he felt, as Raphael’s painting, ”The School of Athens”.
If Gulbenkian compared himself to Raphael, he compared his partners, especially two of them, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and Socony-Vacuum , to Girolama Genga. He found analogies between the activities of these oil companies and the work of an obscure mediocre follower of the Renaissance masters. Through their selfishness the oil companies were always trying to destroy his beautiful work of art. It was this he fought to preserve. His money was secondary. His interest was in the structure that yielded it.
His family, distinguished members of the Armenian community of Constantinople, had for many years been in the business of importing and exporting oil. After graduating from London University, Gulbenkian made a report on Mesopotamian oil that made Hagop Pasha, director of the sultan’s private purse, realize that the sultan’s major asset, apart from the estimated thirty thousand women in his harem, was this vast reserve of petroleum. For this, worthy study, he received no compensation, not even one concubine, which the sultan, one would think, might have been able to spare.
But Gulbenkian was a man of infinite patience. He foresaw the revolt of 1909 that put the Young Turks in power. Although he had become a British subject, he continued to ingratiate himself with the Turkish government. In 1910, he was instrumental in setting up the National Bank of Turkey, which was in fact, a British front for obtaining concessions for the exploitation of Mesopotanian oil. This several years later became the Turkish Petroleum Company. However, just as the new company was preparing to drill, Gulbenkian’s partners, England and Germany, began their mutual slaughter. The belligerents were too engulfed in a sea of blood to exploit their pool of oil. Calouste Gulbenkian had to wait. This was later transformed into the Iraq Petroleum Company that left Gulbenkian with five percent, but with a balance of power he rightly felt would protect him. He was satisfied to have earned the nickname, Mr. Five-Per-Cent.
He was he said, like an artist who had painted a great picture. It had been bought, and now the new owners were ignoring its creator. They did not realize that he was an artist who would fight with every drop of his blood to keep his work of art from being defaced. In the end, he brilliantly played one partner against another, with the balance of power he so carefully arranged allowing him to win a fair settlement, and as a consequence, many additional hundreds of millions of dollars. Henceforth he would often be referred to as the ”mystery billionaire”.