51 Avenue d´Iéna, Paris

Gulbenkian’s road to riches

One of the guiding principles in Gulbenkian’s life was that no one power should have a dominant interest in oil production.

When he founded Turkish Petroleum Company (later Iraq Petroleum Company, IPC) in 1912, he wanted a variety of national interests involved through Anglo-Persian, Royal Dutch Shell and Deutsche Bank, with Gulbenkian himself holding 5%.

The Ottoman government promised the new company concessions in Mosul and Baghdad. At the end of the Great War, Gulbenkian ensured that the German holding came as a part of war reparations to France.

The companies we now know as BP, ExxonMobil, Total and Royal Dutch Shell agreed to cooperate within the area enclosed by the Red Line, enclosing the defunct Ottoman Empire. The combine struck oil in Mosul in 1928 and decided to build a 622-mile pipeline to the Mediterranean coast.

The French insisted that it terminate in Tripoli, and Gulbenkian wanted the port in Haifa. In fact, the 16-inch pipeline forked and had a terminal in each place. Begun in 1930, it began to produce oil in 1934.

In 1923, Gulbenkian bought a huge house in the centre of Paris, 51 Avenue d’Iéna. He had it stripped out and, over four years, it was rebuilt around a steel framework. The upper ground floor contained the offices; the ‘piano nobile’ housed much of his purchased artwork in a library, dining room, grand salon and two other smaller salons.

His family had accommodation on the second floor and Gulbenkian reached the top floor by lift where he had his own bedroom and bathroom, together with that of his valet. His suite overlooked a roof terrace, where he had gardens, trellises and an aviary including a noisy peacock, much to the irritation of his neighbours.

His family hated this house, since for them it was like camping out in a museum. Gulbenkian always arranged to eat at a different time from his family, and never slept in this house, preferring the anonymity of the Ritz.

Having fought for 30 years to ensure that an international cartel of oil companies would control oil production in the former Ottoman Empire, he spent the next 25 years in the struggle not to be consumed by them. He succeeded, yet the 5% of his holding in IPC suddenly became very expensive.

After WW2, the IPC partners decided to build a huge (30-inch) pipeline from Kirkuk to Baniyas (on the Syrian coast) and the four oil companies who were partners in IPC found 95% of the capital, while Gulbenkian had to find the rest. Even for a man as rich, this posed a considerable investment, but it paid off. His wealth in 1951 was estimated at £1,678 million; by 1955, after the pipeline had come on stream, he was worth £19,410 million.

People often speculated on his way of relaxing since he clearly did not play golf. It was his obsession to collect works of art, masterpieces even, and by 1925 he already owned two thirds of his eventual bequest.

In 1927, he bought Les Enclos, an estate near Deauville (France), and he engaged Duchêne, the famous and experienced landscape gardener. Not one to be told what to do, he wrote to Duchêne: “It is high time that you … began following my wishes rather than your own.” This was not a place to live in, but a retreat where he could watch birds and enjoy nature.

What was he like, this oil mogul? In the words of the curator of art at Avenue d´Iéna, Marcelle Chanet: “The most striking thing about his physiognomy were those extraordinary eyes, surmounted by thick eyebrows of a very particular shape. His gaze which bore to the very depths of you was unforgettable. Of middling height, his whole person radiated such power, such magnetic force that one knew straight away that this was an exceptional man, a man made to dominate others.”

Another associate noted his “cleverness, exquisite manners and oriental deviousness. Whenever he sketched out the benefits of some syndicate or other, he always did so in such a refined, ingratiating way that, to use an oriental phrase, he could slip a camel through the eye of a needle”.

Gulbenkian lived in high-class hotels, mostly in France, and was always attended by his valet, but his life was not one of ease. He worked non-stop, answering cables, writing letters, checking accounts.

As head of the family, he tried to run it on business lines, and he expected his wife and his two children to do what they were told. Nevarte (his wife) had become used to his infidelities but enjoyed her life as Mrs 5%; spoilt son Nubar even sued his father in court; daughter Rita was married at his insistence to Kevork, an Armenian whom she did not respect, and she went off the rails.

Calouste himself said that as soon as they learned of his death, his two children would get stuck in the door of the Rolls Royce dealership in London.

At the age of 86, Calouste Gulbenkian died on July 20, 1955 in his bed at the Hotel Aviz in Lisbon. As a British citizen, his body lay in state in the chapel of British Embassy and was then flown to Geneva for cremation, and the ashes were interred at the London Armenian church of St Sarkis which he had built. The memorial service at St Sarkis was so sparsely attended that Gulbenkian’s London office chose not to publish the names of those present. He had apparently cared for no-one in his life and, after he died, few enough cared about him.

Next month: How the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation came to be located in Portugal.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

The Red Line Agreement, 1928
St Sarkis Armenian Church, Kensington, London, built by Gulbenkian and in the grounds of which he is buried
Kirkuk Baniyas pipeline
Gulbenkian at Les Enclos after the War
51 Avenue d´Iéna, Paris