Lisbon's artful collector ... and his world-class cache
Lisbon — He has been called ``the world's most mysterious billionaire'' and ``one of the most astute connoisseurs known.'' ``Never in history has one man owned so much,'' Life magazine wrote of his art collection in 1950.
Although Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian kept his private life guarded during his lifetime, research since his passing has shown common threads in his lifelong dealings: a rare instinct for business and an uncanny eye for art.
Born to a prosperous Armenian family in Istanbul in 1869, he was punished as a child for squandering a meager allowance on coins he bargained for at the local bazaar. Later, however, the coins were shown to be both remarkable and valuable.
Mr. Gulbenkian, son of a successful rug merchant, developed expertise in judging Oriental carpets and published a book at age 21 on the history, workmanship, materials, dyes, and designs and their importance in the economic life of Persia. He was educated at King's College in London, graduating with honors in engineering.
Eventually he amassed his fortune in the oil business. His specialty wasn't drilling, producing, or selling, though, but putting together deals and keeping a share of the profit. Known as ``Mr. Five Percent,'' he amassed his fortune largely from a 5 percent stake in the Iraq Petroleum Company, formed in 1928 during the early days of oil exploration in the Middle East. After making his first million by age 30, he began to collect voraciously.
Ultimately he focused his talent for negotiation, his understanding of Middle Eastern cultures, and his Western education on pursuit of a single goal -- that of building a matchless collection, one of the few to truly encompass art of both East and West.
Described as a shy man with a profound inner life and small appetite for social life, Gulbenkian came to Portugal during World War II to find the peace he could not find elsewhere in Europe. He got caught up in researching, studying, and adding to his collection. After making copious notes on the art objects he desired, he often wrote to museums or governments long before the objects were ever offered for sale. He was thus often in a position to outmaneuver art dealers when and if such occasions arose.
A notable example came in 1928, when the Soviet government needed foreign currency but didn't want to make its sales of national treasures public. The Soviets entered into several transactions with Gulbenkian months of negotiations and clandestine liaisons.
Three years before his death, Gulbenkian wrote: ``I am fully conscious that the time has come to take a decision of the future of my works of art. I can say without fear of exaggeration that I consider them as my `children' and that their welfare is one of my main preoccupations.''
He left his collection and riches to Portugal in gratitude for the refuge the country had provided him in his later years.
Carlos Baptista da Silva, board secretary of the foundation Gulbenkian set up to perpetuate his legacy, notes:``He never gave money to artists or anyone, but that he contracted them to produce something worthwhile in exchange.''