Calouste Gulbenkian (1869 – 1955)

Virtually every Portuguese knows “Calouste Gulbenkian”, or at least the foundation he left behind, one of Portugal’s most important art centers. Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was born in Constantinople (Istanbul), while the Ottoman Empire was still in place, and was the descendent of a princely Armenian family. His family was known for being a patron of the arts and social welfare. His father dealt with the oil business, and Calouste followed his footsteps. Educated in London, he studied petroleum engineerings. With his family, he was forced to flee to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, due to the Armenian genocide, where he was able to meet influential people in the oil industry. Back in London again, he helped creating the Royal Dutch/Shell company, of which he retained 5% of the shares, and later, he was at the forefront of Iraqi’s oil exploitation, where he helped in the foundation of the Turkish Petroleum Co. (later the Iraq Petroleum Co.), from which he also retained 5%. That gave him the name of “Mr. Five-Per-Cent”, but also made him one of the world’s wealthiest men, and allowed him to gather an amazing art collection. After living in Paris for a few years, he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1942. Intending to make a quick stop in Lisbon, he ended up by spending the last years of his life in that city (from 1942 to 1955). In his will, he left a portion of his fortune to his family, collaborators and to several Armenian purposes. However, following the path of his family, Gulbenkian, the philanthropist, left the majority of his fortune and art collection in Lisbon. He wished that a Foundation be built in his name, that might benefit “humanity”, and unite people from different parts of the world. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which promotes education, arts and sciences, is a landmark in the Portuguese capital, without which, the country and the world would be poorer.


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