Unraveling the Life of Calouste Gulbenkian

A scene of the foundation gardens. The statue was built based on a photo of Calouste Gulbenkian sitting in front of an ancient Egyptian god of Horus, during his visit to Egypt in the 1930s
Philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian

Philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian


Many of us may have pondered the question: “Who was Calouste Gulbenkian?” We’ve wondered how, and why, such a foundation exists. Why is the foundation based in Lisbon, Portugal? I certainly had many questions, which I set out to find answers to. Today, I’m going to discuss what I learned about Calouste Gulbenkian and the philanthropic foundation that thrives under his name.

In October of 2018, I had the chance to visit both the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the foundation’s headquarters in Lisbon. I had been yearning to visit the museum to learn more about the life of the prosperous Armenian known as Mr. Five Per Cent.

While visiting the museum, an official at the foundation helped me get in contact with Razmik Panossian, the Director of the Armenian Communities Department at the Gulbenkian Foundation. I wanted to get some information about the foundation, and about Gulbenkian himself. I was informed by Panossian that, for the commemoration of Gulbenkian’s 150th birthday, a new book was set to be published.

Fast forward to April of this year, I was at Abril Bookstore to observe the presentation, and to buy the book Panossian had mentioned. Nestled in the heart of downtown Glendale, where about 80,000 Armenians have made their homes, Abril Bookstore has become a hub for folks who are interested in Armenian literature and culture.

Not long ago Abril Bookstore celebrated its 40th anniversary, a feat well worth mentioning. My kudos to Arno Yeretzian who took over the bookstore after his father’s passing in 2010, and continued his father’s legacy by creating a space for Armenian culture to thrive by arranging a multitude of events. These events include: author presentations, film screenings, small musical concerts and art exhibitions. In addition, Abril Bookstore holds a very unique collection of Armenian books from different corners of the world.

On April 3, I arrived at Abril Bookstore, about half an hour earlier than the scheduled time, for a book presentation. I was eager to meet Jonathan Conlin, the author of Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man, a book about Gulbenkian’s life.

The book presentation consisted of a conversation between the Conlin and Salpi Ghazarian, who is the current director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies. She is a USC and UCLA Alumna with degrees in the Arts, History and Library Science.

The turnout at the bookstore for the event was incredible. The room had reached full capacity—about 100 individuals attended. Everybody seemed very enthused to learn about Calouste Gulbenkian’s life. The half hour, conversational-type, interview between Ghazarian and Conlin went very well. Afterwards, several audience members voiced their questions.

Ghazarian opened the conversation by saying that the 370 page-book was an easy read. She also praised the author’s story-telling abilities.

Conlin described how Gulbenkian became the greatest dealmaker, and the richest man, in the early part of the 20th century. He also spoke about how, in 1955, when Gulbenkian died, the Fortune magazine had not yet begun the naming of the richest men of the world. Thus, his name never made it on the list.

The author added that, at the first part of 20th century, everyone from the Ottoman Sultans to Joseph Stalin sought Gulbenkian’s advice in oil policies. Following this statement, a few audience members raised the question of why he didn’t use his clout to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey.

Christine Yesayan with the mural at the Gulbenkian Foundation's office is by Almada Negreiros

Christine Yesayan with the mural at the Gulbenkian Foundation’s office is by Almada Negreiros

In response Conlin said, “That’s a tough and complex question to answer. But, in short, I can tell you that in 1915 Gulbenkian was not in a position to influence either the Sultan or the Ministers. Between1914 to 1923, Gulbenkian was living in London, and he had no contact with the Turkish Regime.”

Conlin explained how he was given unprecedented access to Gulbenkian’s private papers and archives which were located across the globe: New York, Paris, London, Istanbul, Moscow, and Lisbon. The extensive research and writing of the book took five years.
At one point, Ghazarian asked the audience if anyone in attendance had benefitted from Gulbenkian’s scholarships—about half a dozen hands went up.

At the end of the presentation, Arno announced that the book was almost sold out. There were only a few copies left. As the adage goes, “The books went like hot cakes.”

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Museum:

The city of Lisbon was on my list of places to visit. Fortunately, last year, an opportunity to finally visit arose. Lisbon was a stop on a cruise itinerary that we had booked. On Thursday, October 25, 2018 our ship docked in Lisbon.

Through the ship’s excursions director, we learned that the hop-on/hop-off tour bus in Lisbon had a stop at the Gulbenkian Museum.

As we disembarked, my husband and I bought two tickets for the tour-bus, and went to discover the story behind the Gulbenkian Foundation. It was a quick ride from the port to the museum.

The Gulbenkian Museum surpassed my expectations. If you’re in Lisbon, you must spare a few hours to visit the cultural center. The art collections range from Antiquity to early 20th century. It is one of the best private art collections in the world, amassed over a period of 40 years and donated to the city of Lisbon.

I had not made any prior arrangements to meet with anyone at the foundation’s office. However, at the entrance of the museum, there was a guest-service desk where I asked an official if she could connect me to someone at the foundation’s office.

She placed a call and, in no time, arranged for me to meet with an official. To get to the foundation’s office, I had to cross a garden—which blew my mind away.

The park-like gardens had distinct architecturally designed surroundings, with numerous ponds, bordered with layers of soft plants. The gardens were adorned with a mix of boulders and concrete slabs which created a Zen-like, serene, ambiance that made me to want to sit there and meditate.

If this park was in London, or Paris, it would become one of those iconic places that people would dream of visiting.

Abril Bookstore in Glendale, CA

Abril Bookstore in Glendale, CA

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation:

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum were established one year after Gulbenkian’s death in 1956. They were created as a Portuguese foundation for all of humanity.

The foundation as a whole is one of the biggest cultural centers in Portugal. It has a full orchestra that performs classical music throughout the year, including, on occasion, Armenian-related music. Recently, the orchestra played Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem to a full house.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, today, is one of the largest foundations in Europe. Legally it’s a private charity in the public interest, with international scope. In 2018, it possessed investment assets of nearly 2.9 billion euros and an annual operational budget of 95.1 million euros. The foundation’s main focus is on fostering education and working in the fields of art, charity, and science.

The Gulbenkian Museum consists of two separate parts. The main museum displays the private art collection of Calouste Gulbenkian. The other one is for contemporary art.

The foundation has an Armenian Communities Department, whose main priority has always been to support Armenian students worldwide, promote Armenian studies, as well as Armenian schools. It works with Armenian schools from Argentina to Lebanon.

During the past five years (2014 – 2018) the department has awarded around 5.2 million U.S. dollars in scholarships to 1,207 students, academics, and researchers.

The Armenian Department collaborates with Hamazkayin which, throughout the Armenian Diaspora, is an educational and cultural society.

Over the past few years, as a charitable and humanitarian work, the foundation has partnered with AGBU and the Government of Armenia. It has provided assistance for the tuition fees of over 400 Syrian Armenian students studying in Armenia. Also, the foundation offered humanitarian aid to affected Armenian refugees in the Middle East from 2013 – 2015.

The “core” activity of the Armenian Department is the preservation, advancement and revitalization of Western Armenian. As part of its Western Armenian development the Armenian Communities Department of the foundation finances innovative summer language camps for children and young adults, as well as a teacher training programs, called “Zarmanazan.”

From l to r: Author of "Mr. Five Per Cent" Jonathan Conlin, Arno Yeretzian of Abril Bookstore, and Director of the USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies Salpi Ghazarian at Abril Bookstore

From l to r: Author of “Mr. Five Per Cent” Jonathan Conlin, Arno Yeretzian of Abril Bookstore, and Director of the USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies Salpi Ghazarian at Abril Bookstore

This program is very popular with teenagers and young adults who are excited to learn the Armenian language. Every year, 50 – 70 youth benefit from the program.

The focus on Armenian language is followed by academic initiatives that support and promote Armenian studies in the diaspora. For example, in the United States, the foundation collaborates with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, the Society for Armenian Studies at UCLA, USC and other universities.

In Turkey, the foundation supports initiatives that promote dialogue between Armenians and Turkish civil society, and gives support to institutions that work in this domain (e.g. Hrant Dink Foundation). It also supports academic research and teaching on Armenian related subjects.

There are nine Armenians employed at the Foundations offices. Four out of eight people working at the Armenian Communities Department are Armenian, including its Director—Razmik Panossian. There are three Armenian musicians in the orchestra, and two Armenians that work in other departments of the foundation. In addition, Calouste Gulbenkian’s great-grandson, Martin Essayan, is an executive member of the Board of Trustees.

Celebrating Gulbenkian’s 150th birthday:

2019 has been a celebratory year at the foundation, as they celebrated Gulbenkian’s 150th birthday anniversary. Since the beginning of the year, there have been many concerts, lectures and special exhibitions.

The celebrations began in January, with the launching Jonathan Conlin’s biography of Gulbenkian. The President of Portugal attended, and spoke at, the event.

On March 23, on the actual birthday of Gulbenkian, the foundation celebrated the150th birthday by the opening of an exhibition devoted to the founder. The event consisted of concerts, lectures and a prize ceremony for youth.

Among the promotional activities was a national campaign organized for the Portuguese youth, to answer the question, “Who is Calouste?” through visual arts, music, film and text. The foundation gave over 60,000 euros in prizes. It was a way for Portuguese youth to learn more about Calouste Gulbenkian.

In July, the foundation will launch a book that will illustrate the letters that Gulbenkian wrote to his grandson, Mikael Essayan.

The Portuguese Postal Service, with the collaboration of the Armenian Postal Service, has launched a commemorative postage stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of Gulbenkian’s birth.

Now, allow me to give you a quick history about the admirable Calouste Gulbenkian who was a descendent of the prominent Rechduni Princes in Vaspourakan, south of Lake Van, with roots going back to the 4th century.

Jonathan Conlin, in his book, takes the reader on a tour of Gulbenkian’s private life, from his upbringing in a wealthy Armenian family, to adulthood—as a young man leading a champagne lifestyle, escorting actresses and showgirls.

Calouste Gulbenkian, was born in Istanbul in 1869. An affluent man, he was nicknamed “Mr. Five Per Cent,” because he acquired his tremendous wealth through receiving 5% from oil rights sold in the Middle East. Gulbenkian grew up in a very well-to-do family, who enjoyed cordial relations with the Ottoman court.

A scene of the foundation gardens. The statue was built based on a photo of Calouste Gulbenkian sitting in front of an ancient Egyptian god of Horus, during his visit to Egypt in the 1930s

A scene of the foundation gardens. The statue was built based on a photo of Calouste Gulbenkian sitting in front of an ancient Egyptian god of Horus, during his visit to Egypt in the 1930s

Gulbenkian’s education began at the Armenian elementary school of Aramyan-Uncuyan in Kadikoy, a neighborhood in Istanbul by the east side of Marmara Sea (the Asian side).Later, he transferred to a French school.

In chapter two, Conlin tells us that children in the Gulbenkian family were brought up by nurses, tutors and governesses, with limited access to their parents. In 1882, 13-year-old Calouste, alongside his tutor “Baron” Devgantz was sent to Marseille to perfect his French.

When he was only 18-years-old, Gulbenkian received his degree in engineering and applied sciences from Kings College in London. Combining his education with his family background, he easily penetrated the oil industry.

In London, at the age of 23, he married Nevarte Essayan, who was also from a wealthy and noble Armenian family, with ties to Ottoman court. They had two kids, Nubar Sarkis and Rita Sirvate.

In 1897, when he was 28-years-old, Gulbenkian established an office in London, and in 1902 he acquired British citizenship. At the age of 40, he became appointed as the economic and financial counselor to the Ottoman embassies in London and Paris.

In 1912 at an early age of 43, he created the Turkish Petroleum Company, which at the start consisted of four partners: the Dutch-British Royal Shell, the National Bank of Turkey, the Deutsche Bank and himself.

Today, the Shell Company at the United States is a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch Shell that Gulbenkian founded in 1912.

Mr. Five Per Cent Moves to Lisbon:

In April of 1942, World War II was in full swing. Both Paris and London were occupied. To avoid the distresses of the war, Gulbenkian was staying in Vichy, France, where he realized that he had been betrayed and mistreated by the British government. Outraged, dismayed and disheartened he decided to pull all of his assets from England.

While in Vichy, Gulbenkian met the Portuguese ambassador, who told him about the charms of Portugal, and how it was the only country in Europe that had escaped the war. So, Mr. Five Per Cent, in spite of the fabulous offers made to him by the United States, finally took up residency in Lisbon.

One fine day in April of 1942, Gulbenkian, accompanied by his wife, his secretary, his masseur, his chef, a dozen cats and his beloved birds, set out to Lisbon in his luxurious Rolls Royce cars. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gulbenkian adopted Portugal and donated his stupendous art collection to the city of Lisbon. After his death a museum and a charitable foundation were established.

In short over the course of his 86 year-long life, Gulbenkian travelled the world, lived through two World Wars, became a diplomat, a businessman, a philanthropist, an art collector and most importantly a visionary in the oil industry.

Discussion Policy

Comments are welcomed and encouraged. Though you are fully responsible for the content you post, comments that include profanity, personal attacks or other inappropriate material will not be permitted. Asbarez reserves the right to block users who violate any of our posting standards and policies.


  1. Hay said:

    I just started reading a very recent translation of a book written in Portugese, titled “The Man From Constantinople” by veteran Portuguese reporter and writer J.R.Dos Santos.
    It’s about Calouste Gulbenkian.
    Apparently there’s interest in this great armenian.

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Hello Hay,
      Thanks for taking the time and reading my story.
      Best Regards,

  2. Noric Dilanchian said:

    I made the following video inspired by the new evidence of the last three chapters of Jonathan Conlin’s 2018 book, Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man:

    Gulbenkian Foundation Myth Busted: Philanthropic Intent Dishonoured

    In the video’s description field in YouTube I’ve overview in the key topic of the video as set out below.

    António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), a leader in the 48 year dictatorship in Portugal from 1933 to 1974 worked secretly with Jose de Azeredo Perdigao, Calouste Gulbenkian’s Portugese lawyer.

    The last few chapters of Jonathan Colin’s 2018 book, Mr Five Per Cent, set out previously unknown facts about how Salazar and Perdigao secretly worked together from the year of Gulbenkian’s death, 1955, to distort the Gulbenkian philanthropic intent for the foundation.

    From a foundation intended to serve humanity it became one dominated by Portugese causes. This is evident in estimated percentages of foundation funds spent on Portugese causes:

    20% offered by Cyril Radcliffe (CSG’s English lawyer)
    33% sought by Jose Perdigao
    45% 1955-1958 actual
    85% in recent years
    5% Armenian causes
    ? % non-Portugese and non-Armenian

    20% offered by Cyril Radcliffe (CSG’s English lawyer)
    33% sought by Jose Perdigao
    45% 1955-1958 actual
    85% in recent years
    5% Armenian causes
    ? % non-Portugese and non-Armenian

  3. Soghomon Sakarya said:

    Interesting Article Catherine,

    This prominent families background goes all the way back to Talas/Kayseri where I lived all my youth..Their mansion is still standing, when I visited last year there was a renovation being done by the town.My father was the caretaker of the place during the winter months when the owners moved to Kayseri,so I still remember the inside of this huge place.There are other buildings still in use including one which was inside the grounds of the Talas Amerikan School For Boys (closed in 1967) used as a dormitory .. Originally it was built by the Gulbenkian family as a home later turned into an Armenian Girls School..The town people from my time of the 1950’s(not many left) still refer to their most prominent mansion as Gulbenkyan Kosk..If you might have any interest give me your e-mail I will forward you some photos of the buildings mentioned above..have a nice day

    • Hacik Istanbul said:

      I would love to see these pictures!!! I have not read this recent book by Conlin, however I am a dedicated reader of Armenian history. It seems that the book will raise many new questions about Calouste.

  4. Preston Bagrationi said:

    The Only issue I have with Mr. Gulbenkyan was donating his art collection to Portugal. Whether you like it or not, these riches will Never leave Portugal. These should all have been in Yerevan today, sadly, we will Only look from afar and marvel at his collection.

  5. Harout Nalbandian said:

    We were recently in Portugal. Absolutely a fabulous country to visit. Upon arriving in Lisbon, after 4 days in Porto, I was looking forward to finally visit the Gulbenkian museum. so the second morning we found out which subway would get us there and after 5 stops we got out of the station and I could not take my steps fast enough to get to the gate. I was wowed by everything I saw and finally we got to the main building. We started walking room by room with every room that contained magnificent pieces of art and sculptures from many different countries around the globe I started feeling a little let down. I forgot that I was in an otherwise great museum and all I could think about was there was nothing by an Armenian painter, sculptor which I must say we have no shortage of. Not even a single Ayvazovski painting… The only mention of Armenian anything was a small manuscript in the “Islamic Art” building. There were 2 pictures of Greek refugees getting out of a boat who had just escaped the massacres in Smyrna. But were there any pictures depicting the Armenian genocide? None… And one poster mentioning

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      You are absolutely right. It seems Mr. Gulbenkian was far removed from his Armenian heritage.