WHEN Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian passed away 30 years ago, John Walker, then director of the National Gallery in Washington, called his collection ``the greatest in breadth and standard assembled by one person in our time.'' It includes 3,000 pieces dating from the 12th to 18th centuries: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculpture, Islamic ceramics and carpets, oriental art, impressionist paintings, and Lalique crystal.
According to Prof. Arthur Upham Pope, one-time director of Iran's Asia Institute, Gulbenkian came up in the ranks of collectors ``by sheer talent, superior intellect, imagination, grasp of detail and persistence . . . .''
Gulbenkian once wrote, ``My aim is to make a very fine collection . . . from an artistic point of view . . . , [confining] myself to such specimens as are of the finest preservation and the most remarkable beauty.'' And with the insistence that his acquisitions be in perfect condition and, if possible, have been owned by notable historic figures, he declared: ``I do not want rarities if they do not at the same time respond to the above characteristics.''
Vere Pilkington, a former director of Sotheby's auction house, told Architectural Digest in 1979: ``Gulbenkian would buy only what he thought was perfect. If a corner of a painting had been damaged and restored, he would have nothing to do with it. He had an extraordinary eye for quality, and bought only what he admired, not what dealers or experts urged on him.''
Mr. Pilkington also told of one encounter with the enigmatic collector: ``I remember a Constable he wanted but thought was overpriced. I told him it would bring the price asked for it, and it did. I told him about another Constable I thought was superior to the one he wanted, but he'd have none of it. He only wanted that one, and so there is no Constable in the collection.''
Says Rolf Westphal, professor of art at Wisconsin's Lawrence University: Gulbenkian's collection ``is important because it is one of the most profound, encyclopedic collections in the world -- containing a smattering of the greater artifacts of many periods.''
Professor Westphal adds that it is very rare to find someone with as good an eye for quality as Gulbenkian. ``It has to do with not only knowing about art itself through exhaustive study and exposure but with having a bit of the artist in himself.''