Calouste Gulbenkian’s nationality was originally Ottoman. He became British in 1902 and lived most of his life in France, so why is his Foundation in Lisbon?
When war broke out again in 1939, Gulbenkian decided that he would remain in France, just as he had done in the Great War. The rapid advance of the German army in the summer of 1940 took him by surprise, and he suddenly found that he was now in German-occupied territory.
In his capacity as Economic Attaché to the Iranian Legation, Gulbenkian was summoned to live close to the Ambassador at the centre of government at Vichy in central France, and while Iran was neutral in the world war, life for him was tranquil.
As Iran joined the Allied cause, in March 1942 he was asked to leave France, and he determined to go via Lisbon to the USA. Although he succeeded in obtaining visas, he decided to remain in Lisbon, where he at one point suffered the indignity of being arrested by the secret police.
His mansion in Paris containing all his “children” (his works of art) was left in the care of his housekeeper and her three flags. The French tricolour, the Union flag and the Iranian flag would be displayed as circumstances demanded. When the mansion was visited by German officers seeking worthwhile requisitions, she prominently displayed the Iranian flag, claiming diplomatic immunity.
While he had been in occupied France, ostensibly working with the Vichy government, his income had been withheld in Britain, as he had become a “technical enemy”, a description which Gulbenkian took as a personal affront, and which was to influence him during the remainder of his life. His oil-generated income was restored to him in 1943.
At the war’s end, 76-year-old Gulbenkian continued to live in the Hotel Aviz in Lisbon. While he seemed to rely on his good health to take him past his father’s final age of 105, the next decade saw a decline in his health and powers of concentration. His address book contained the names of 44 doctors, and he checked all medical opinions with a second doctor. After 1951, his health in general worsened, and he suffered from heart trouble, lumbago and neuritis in his legs which at one point became gangrenous.
As a self-made millionaire, Gulbenkian loathed socialism and high taxation, and Britain’s post-war Labour government was raising tax to pay for the war. As a collaborator with the Vichy government, he was also unwelcome in post-war France.
In correspondence, Gulbenkian referred to himself as tormented over the eventual home of his “children” after his death. For some time, he had been in close contact with the Director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark, and Gulbenkian had lent 29 paintings to the Gallery and other Egyptian statuettes to the British Museum. The Gallery had proposed a new extension so that all his works might be kept together. Clark resigned his post in 1945, and Gulbenkian never warmed to his successor, Philip Hendy, a humourless socialist who did not display the “children” as Gulbenkian wished, as both the National Gallery and the British Museum struggled to repair bomb damage.
Simultaneously, John Walker, the chief curator of the National Gallery in Washington, won agreement for paintings and statuettes to be displayed in Washington. In 1950, the Egyptian collection and 41 paintings from London were on display in Washington and Walker hoped to keep his works together on permanent loan.
Although he was vague about the aims and location of his Foundation, Gulbenkian had two special friends in the effort to establish it. Cyril Radcliffe was an English law lord whom Gulbenkian wanted as Lead Trustee, and the other was his Portuguese lawyer José de Azeredo Perdigão, whose standing in the legal profession in Portugal was high. Perdigão pressed the case for Portugal as the home for the Foundation.
A crucial question for Gulbenkian was the status of his will. Would it be subject to English law (he could bequeath his property as he pleased) or to French or Portuguese law (which protected the interests of his children)? A new will drafted in 1953 centred on a Foundation to be established in Lisbon, but its objectives were vague – “charitable, artistic, educational and scientific”.
Gulbenkian, for the first time in his life, began to have difficulty in making decisions, and before the busy Radcliffe could design his Foundation, Gulbenkian died in July 1955.
To escape Portuguese taxes, the statutes of the Foundation would have to be approved by the Portuguese government. Although he denied it, Perdigão secretly stayed in touch with Salazar, who ordered him to ensure that the board of trustees had a Portuguese majority, and Radcliffe’s desire for an international board was frustrated at every turn. Salazar intended that Gulbenkian’s “gift” should be used to the benefit of the people of Portugal, and other Portuguese lawyers unsurprisingly concurred.
As an employee remarked in 1955, Gulbenkian had so distrusted all around him, including his family, that he did not consult any of them about his will, and turned to a comparative stranger – and as it seems a none too honest Portuguese lawyer. Obsessed with protecting his fortune from his warring family, he failed to take the elementary step of protecting it from the dictatorial regime.
Consequently, the Portuguese government managed to grab not only his wealth but also his fabulous art collection, effectively a 100% death duty. And the Gulbenkian Foundation became Portugal’s equivalent Ministry of Culture and has at present assets of over €3 billion.
By Lynne Booker