Lead book review

How Calouste Gulbenkian became the richest man in the world

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

Whenever I find myself visiting some great historic house, I always like to break off from gawping at tapestries to ask the tour guide: ‘How did the family make its money in the first place?’ For some reason, this almost always astonishes and bewilders. It’s as if the devotion of capital to bricks and mortar, acres of commemorative canvas and fresco, marble and landscaping, covers up any roots in the slave trade or the amassing of bribes from Indian nawabs. Money is made, and then it sets about dignifying itself.

The Gulbenkian Foundation is a solid organisation based in Lisbon. It dispenses money in improving ways and possesses a very handsome art gallery, full of treasures. It is a blameless thing. But why is it in Lisbon? Why does it have so much money? And how was that money made?

No doubt in a couple of centuries hardly anyone will pose these questions, and the Gulbenkian Foundation will appear as innocuous as Kedleston Hall. Jonathan Conlin’s riveting life of its founder, Calouste Gulbenkian, lays bare the savage origins of this expensive tranquillity. Yeats said it best: ‘Some violent bitter man, some powerful man/Called architect and artist in, that they,/Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone/ The sweetness that all longed for night and day.’

Like many obscenely rich men, Calouste was from an already very wealthy family. His origins were in the close-knit Armenian community in Constantinople. A favourite anecdote has his father, Sarkis, complaining that his coffee-servant had fallen asleep on the job; the other servants, over-zealously, beat him to death. His father’s angry complaint, ‘I told you to beat him, not to kill him,’ forms the punchline. When Sarkis died, he left the equivalent of £80 million. Calouste, who had been educated abroad, a rootless commander of money, set about transforming this to an inconceivable extent.

Left: Calouste Gulbenkian. Centre: ‘The Break-up of the Ice’ by Claude Monet. Right: ‘Boy Blowing Bubbles’ by Edouard Manet, from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, LisbonLeft: Calouste Gulbenkian. Centre: ‘The Break-up of the Ice’ by Claude Monet. Right: ‘Boy Blowing Bubbles’ by Edouard Manet, from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

The source of the vast fortune was oil. Gulbenkian took a close interest in it, even at a time when its main commercial use was as kerosene for lighting. Before the first world war, he had acquired a 5 per cent share of oil throughout the territories of the Ottoman empire. The value of this was not universally apparent until the 1920s.

At 3 a.m. on 14 October 1927, drilling near Kirkuk in Iraq hit oil under such pressure that it exploded with 90,000 barrels a day. The flow could not be brought under control for more than a week; five workers were asphyxiated by the gas cloud that formed. Against all advice, Gulbenkian hung on to his share for decades. He had written a report on the exploitation of Mesopotamian oil in 1894; the first crude from Kirkuk reached the Mediterranean in 1934. Only once in his life, at the age of 19, did he actually visit an oil field.

The unflagging efforts Gulbenkian made to consolidate his position are described in fascinating detail by Conlin. When it came to it, Gulbenkian was extremely reluctant to invest any of his 5 per cent in the necessary infrastructure — in, for instance, contributing towards the costs of constructing pipelines. But the main interest of this clear-sighted biography is in its exploration of what this level of wealth does to a man, and the people around him.

‘I am the master — it is I who have the money — I will flatten everything in my path,’ Gulbenkian once told his wife. If he was not entirely detached from the idea of morality, he seems to have permitted himself an idiosyncratic notion of conduct. Among his stated ‘fixed moral principles’ was an open disapproval of friends keeping ‘profitable deals to themselves, without allowing Gulbenkian to “taste a slice of it”.’ An Ottoman doctor called Kemhadjian usefully advised his wealthy patient that it was necessary for him ‘to have sex regularly with young women, as a rejuvenating tonic’. Gulbenkian stuck carefully to this programme.

On the other hand, he maintained no particular principles about who he was prepared to trade with. The Armenian massacres made no impact on his dealings with Turks. He had no objection to doing business with the Third Reich, and the Russian revolution presented him with a huge opportunity, both in terms of oil concessions and acquiring art from the imperial collections. Others at the time had moral objections to the Soviet commissars, one oilman stating firmly that ‘such money is used to promote revolution and murder. The Soviet regime is an anti-Christ regime’. It was not so much that these views were different to Gulbenkian’s; more that he considered such questions beneath him.

Calouste’s family life was a sorry affair. He acquired a palace in Paris, but kept it more or less as a museum. He would retire each night to sleep at the Ritz, after being hosed down in a silver-lined Lalique bathroom niche by an unenvied valet. His wife, Nevarte, led a sad life. Gulbenkian was an avid collector of jewellery, but she was never permitted to wear any of it. His son, Nubar, was kept on a tight leash by either the promise of more money or the periodic, wilful withdrawal of all funds. At one point, absurdly, he sued his father in open court, claiming 5 per cent of the 5 per cent.

Calouste’s idea of a loving offer of reconciliation after one of these periodic ruptures was a note inviting Nubar ‘to return with heart and love to your father’s work and receive and enjoy your usual allowance’. In later years, Nubar became a favourite of the British media for his startling, pantomime-villain appearance and his way with jocular bons mots. He famously drove around in a converted London cab, remarking: ‘I like to travel in a gold-plated taxi. It can turn on a sixpence, whatever that is.’

The collections are magnificent, of course, and it is they that ensure that Gulbenkian’s name is remembered when other immensely rich men of the time — his associate Henri Deterding, for instance — are forgotten. Much of the art was amassed in disgraceful circumstances, inluding Rembrandts from the Hermitage after the Russian revolution. After acquiring what he wanted, Gulbenkian had the gall to write to the commissar in charge:

I have always been of the opinion that those things which have been held in your museums for many years should not be sold. If word of their sale were to get out it would harm your government’s credit.

In other words, he didn’t want anyone else to be allowed to go shopping at the Hermitage.

Some of the most important pieces were immediately loaned to institutions and never actually seen by Gulbenkian himself. Still, the art remains in Lisbon — which was the one place in Europe he could go on living in five magnificent hotel suites throughout the second world war and afterwards, until his death in 1955.

This is an excellent book, guiding us with a sure hand and a lucid talent for exposition through the very different worlds of connoisseurship, family trauma and the making of millions. Conlin frankly admits when one of Gulbenkian’s business dealings, intended to be obscure, remains impenetrable. He compels unwilling admiration for the sheer tenacity of his hero over decades, while leaving us in no doubt of the hellish narrowness of Calouste’s focus.

The tycoon is beautifully summed up in many passing details, but perhaps particularly the list in his pocketbook of

all the things he needed to have with him when he travelled: passports, stationery,
telegraph code books, wines and champagnes, medicines, coffee, honey (a special kind), sunglasses and binoculars (for birdwatching).

But no books.

This biography reminds me of Anthony Powell’s devastating portrait of Sir Magnus Donners, another rich patron whose

interest leant towards painting rather than literature. He existed in my mind as one of those figures, dominating, no doubt, in their own remote sphere, but slightly ridiculous when seen casually at close quarters.

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