Affronts he never forgave

Christina Riggs

  • Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man by Jonathan Conlin
    Profile, 402 pp, £25.00, January, ISBN 978 1 78816 042 1

Calouste Gulbenkian didn’t acquire his astonishing fortune by wasting time. The day after the fifth Earl of Carnarvon died in a Cairo hotel room in April 1923, struck down either by sepsis or the curse of the pharaohs, Gulbenkian was on the phone to the Paris branch of Duveen Brothers, dealers in art and antiquities. He wanted to know what was going to happen to Carnarvon’s superb collection of Egyptian antiquities – a collection which, like Gulbenkian’s own, had been shaped by the excellent eye of Howard Carter. Six weeks earlier Carter had opened the burial chamber of Tutankhamun in front of the world’s press, with Carnarvon, the expedition’s sponsor, in proud attendance. Gulbenkian suspected that if anyone knew the fate of Carnarvon’s collection, it would be Joseph Duveen, the well-connected dealer who dominated the interwar art market. But Duveen thought Gulbenkian’s tactics rather tactless and cabled from his London office that Gulbenkian might at least have waited until after the funeral. By the time the telegram arrived, Gulbenkian had already inquired again, in person this time, and was (according to Duveen’s man in Paris) ‘keener than ever’ to make an offer. Carnarvon also had a rather nice Gainsborough.

This anecdote isn’t in Jonathan Conlin’s new biography of Gulbenkian, but it captures the single-minded focus and financial shrewdness that he brought to both his collecting and his career as the chief architect of the oil industry, which took shape – and took off – in the first half of the 20th century. Gulbenkian was born in 1869 to a family of prosperous Armenian merchants living in Istanbul who were part of the amiras, a group of 165 mercantile families that formed an elite within the Armenian population of the city. The Gulbenkians were recent arrivals from the town of Talas in central Anatolia, typical of this part of the Ottoman Empire in its mixed Armenian, Greek and Turkish population. They had cousins scattered throughout the Middle East: studio portraits in Mr Five Per Cent show the different self-stylings of Ottoman elites, from stiff European outfits to Arabian robes. For centuries Armenians and other ethnic groups under Ottoman rule had enjoyed certain protections and privileges, including religious freedom. These groups, or millets, were essentially non-territorial nations, and the sense of not belonging to a fixed country was something Gulbenkian retained throughout his life.

Growing up in Istanbul, Gulbenkian spoke both Turkish and Armenian. His father rejected the city’s French and American schools and in 1883 sent his 14-year-old son to an uncle in Marseille to study business and perfect his French. The following year, Gulbenkian moved to London where he enrolled at King’s College School: not as prestigious as Westminster or Harrow, which also had Armenian pupils, but furthering his father’s ambitions for him all the same. He was homesick and bullied at school, but fared better at university. In 1887 he graduated with a certificate in applied sciences from King’s College London. His father had forbade him from studying mechanical engineering, but it wouldn’t have helped him much in the mining or petroleum industries. A head for money was more important.

Gulbenkian returned to Istanbul to join his father’s firm, an import-export business that dealt, among other things, in kerosene. He was sent on the only visit he would ever make to an oilfield, at Baku in what is now Azerbaijan. Oil was becoming a global industry, with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil entering the Ottoman market and facing competition from Nobel, based in St Petersburg. But much of the actual production was in the hands of dozens of small operators, who used rudimentary technology to distil Baku’s plentiful crude oil, often dumping or burning off most of it to get to what was then the most desirable product: kerosene for lamps and stoves.

It was mining rather than oil that first attracted Gulbenkian. He seems to have won, and lost, a fortune speculating in South African mines in the 1890s. His father’s death in 1893 made him head of the family firm, but in 1897 he moved to London and struck out on his own by starting a new company, eventually leaving his father’s firm to the rest of the family. He was part of a larger exodus of Armenians from Istanbul following the massacres of 1895 and 1896. As soon as he was eligible, he became a naturalised British citizen. Apart from a holiday to Egypt and Palestine in 1934, he never returned to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Petroleum’s new value as engine fuel shifted the focus of the oil industry in the decade leading up to the First World War. There was money to be made from petrol, but the amount of investment and infrastructure required for exploration, extraction, refining and pipeline construction – before a saleable product even existed – made its exploitation inefficient or impossible for small firms. Building on his contacts with Armenian merchants, who managed many of the Russian oil firms, Gulbenkian established himself as a skilful negotiator. He started to shape cartels that would co-operate on the supply side and share the profits of increasing demand, especially in the eastern Ottoman Empire. In 1912, Gulbenkian set up the Turkish Petroleum Company, its name inspired by the Young Turk rebellion against Sultan Abdülhamid II. Shareholders in the company included Royal Dutch Shell (whose merger he had helped arrange five years earlier), Anglo-Persian (later BP) and Deutsche Bank; Gulbenkian reserved for himself the five per cent share that became his epithet and made his fortune.

Shortly before war broke out, Turkish Petroleum received a firman from the Ottoman government awarding the company the concession to all oil found on its land. After 1919, with the status of the firman in doubt, Gulbenkian used his connections in the British and French governments to keep America – and Standard Oil – out of Iraq, at least temporarily, and awarded the German share of Turkish Petroleum to the French firm Compagnie Française des Pétroles, now known as Total. At a meeting in Ostend in 1928, the partners – by then including Standard – drew a red line on a map, finalising the borders of the vast area over which they were establishing a monopoly. An apocryphal story puts the red pen in Gulbenkian’s hand. In fact he rarely attended board meetings, although he must have approved the result of this one. The Red Line Agreement ringed Turkey, Mandate Palestine, Syria and Iraq, creating a border with Persia east of Kirkuk and running down to Abadan on the Persian Gulf. All of the Arabian Peninsula lay within the territory, apart from Kuwait, then a British protectorate. That red line decided all the oil riches, and the oil wars, to come.

In Mr Five Per Cent, Conlin sets out this history in sometimes dizzying detail; against it, the strains and oddities of Gulbenkian’s personal life come as light relief. His wife, Nevarte, the daughter of a more established amira family, followed a socialite circuit between Paris, Provence and spa towns in Germany. Their daughter, Rita, abandoned her son and husband for an affair with the Russian émigré artist Paul Mak, while their flamboyant, Cambridge-educated son, Nubar, spent his time, and money, on women, cars and orchid buttonholes. Nubar courted the publicity his father shunned, and enjoyed the aristocratic English pursuits that had never interested him. Gulbenkian favoured France, keeping an apartment in Paris, where the privations of the First World War forced his pet canaries to swap Evian for tap water. In 1922 he acquired a vast mansion at 51 avenue d’Iéna, which he had rebuilt to house his growing art collection. Gulbenkian ate separately from his family and never slept in his bedroom at the top of the house, retiring instead to a suite at the Ritz. A few years later, he bought a country retreat near Deauville, where designing the gardens occupied him for years. Peacocks were integral to the plan.

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When or why Gulbenkian first took an interest in art is unclear. In 1903 he began to have tutorials with Camille Benoît, a curator at the Louvre, focusing on the museum’s Italian collection, but the first items in his collection were Dutch landscapes, Van Dyck portraits and Venetian Grand Tour scenes. He didn’t limit himself to paintings, becoming an enthusiastic patron of René Lalique, who created an entire bathroom for him in Paris, while family connections were behind some of the remarkable Persian carpets, Iznik ceramics and Armenian manuscripts he acquired. He continued to educate himself, through books and journals as well as visits to museums (the Wallace Collection made a strong impression), and the commercial galleries that were becoming so influential. Naturally, he entered the ambit of dealers like Duveen, but he expected favourable prices and generous terms, occasionally dangling the possibility of investment advice in return.

His interest in Egypt was inspired by the Burlington Fine Art Club’s Ancient Egyptian Art exhibition of 1921. The fad for Egyptian fragments was part of an English fashion for ceramics and small non-Western objects that could fit happily among other exotica in a domestic setting. Although Gulbenkian was one of the biggest buyers of Egyptian antiquities – paying more than £10,000 for an obsidian head of the pharaoh Senwosret III in 1922 – this was small change compared to the price of the Old Master paintings he was buying at the same time.[*] Personal taste played a role in his acquisitions: he loved cats and owned several statuettes of Egyptian cat deities. But he also believed in diversifying his portfolio.

His favourite pieces were kept at his house on the avenue d’Iéna. The dining room was designed around a set of 16th-century tapestries from Mantua, while some of his Iznik tiles lined a staircase. Upstairs, a top-lit picture gallery – spacious enough for a Turner shipwreck and some Canaletto views of Venice – was accessed through the Assyrian Room, which housed smaller items, including some of the Egyptian pieces. Further treasures were kept in London, stored with dealers or lent to museums, whose curators dispensed expertise in exchange for the privilege, or possibility, of a donation. In one of the stranger episodes in his collecting career, Gulbenkian was invited to go shopping at the Hermitage. In 1928 Stalin set sales targets for Soviet museums, just as Gulbenkian was smoothing the path of Russian oil interests in Persia. It took two years of hard negotiating, but for £155,000 (nearly £9,000,000 today), he secured a Rubens, two Rembrandts, an assortment of silver and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s life-size marble Diana, which took pride of place in the entrance of his Paris house as it once had at Tsarskoye Selo. All the works avoided French customs duty due to Gulbenkian’s diplomatic status as a member of the Persian legation in Paris.

Gulbenkian held British and, from 1919, Armenian passports, but resided in France, an arrangement which didn’t escape the notice of the British authorities. The Home Office considered stripping him of British citizenship on grounds of tax avoidance, but the Foreign Office rejected the idea on the grounds that it wouldn’t be in the national interest. His position grew more complicated during the Second World War. With the German army en route to Paris, Gulbenkian and his wife reluctantly joined the Iranian legation at Vichy. This meant he fell foul of the 1939 Trading with the Enemy Act and was given enemy status – an affront he never forgave, though it was later overturned. The Gulbenkians found themselves wrong-footed once again in 1942, when Iran signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and Britain, cutting off diplomatic relations with France. With British assistance, Gulbenkian received a visa for the US, but, worried that Britain might be colluding with the American tax authorities, he decided neutral Portugal was the nearest and best solution. In November 1942 he moved to the Hotel Aviz in Lisbon, where he remained until his death in 1955.

In Lisbon, Gulbenkian began to plan for the future of his collection. In 1936 he had met Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, when Clark came to view his collection. Gulbenkian was pleased that Clark was interested in the Egyptian antiquities and Islamic pieces as much as the European paintings and decorative arts. He also sought Clark’s advice on new acquisitions, which he then lent to the National Gallery. Together the two men developed a plan for an extension to the gallery, which would house the complete Gulbenkian collection; the American architect William Delano was commissioned to design it.

Although both Gulbenkian and Clark kept the idea alive for as long as they could, the war changed everything, including Gulbenkian’s feelings for his adopted country (he rejected a knighthood in 1951). He next set his sights on the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, courted by its director, John Walker, with plans for a new building and murmurs of favourable tax rates. In 1949 and 1950, Gulbenkian sent a selection of his paintings to Washington, together with his Egyptian collection, which had been on loan to the British Museum since the 1930s. The American plans proved too costly, however, and the reception of the American press too cold – not to mention the unwanted attention reporters paid to Gulbenkian himself. Time magazine described him as being as ‘impassive and aloof as the statuettes he collects’. ‘The future of my paintings, to which I have given the best of myself, torments me constantly,’ he wrote to a friend. Before he died, he made plans for a foundation that would further ‘educational, artistic and benevolent ends’. He settled on Portugal as its home, in expectation of tax advantages.

Gulbenkian didn’t, in the end, acquire Carnarvon’s Egyptian antiquities: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid £55,000 for them in 1926. It was an exaggerated price, Gulbenkian told Duveen, and he was sure Howard Carter had facilitated the sale just to annoy him. He also failed in his attempts to secure Iraqi representation on the board of the Turkish Petroleum Company, which in 1929 became the Iraq Petroleum Company. ‘Native participation’ was written into the company articles as early as 1920 but never acted on; in the late 1940s, the Iraqi politician Mohammed Hadid decried Western manipulation of petrol concessions in the Middle East as a form of colonialism. Gulbenkian tried to persuade shareholders that a seat at the boardroom table would allow politicians such as Hadid to grasp what the business involved. He was voted down. In 1972 the Iraq Petroleum Company was nationalised, but Gulbenkian’s shares in ‘red line’ oilfields continued to pay dividends to the Gulbenkian Foundation until 2014. Today it has assets of £2.5 billion.

[*] I would like to thank Tom Hardwick for sharing his research on Gulbenkian with me.