Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (23 March 1869 – 20 July 1955) was an Armenian businessman and philanthropist. He played a major role in making the petroleum reserves of the Middle East available to Western development. By the end of his life he had become one of the world's wealthiest individuals and his art acquisitions considered one of the greatest private collections.
In 1912 Gulbenkian was the brain behind the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) — a consortium of the largest European oil companies aimed at cooperatively procuring oil exploration and development rights in the Ottoman Empire territory of Iraq, while excluding other interests. A promise of these rights was made to the TPC, but the beginning of World War I interrupted their efforts.
During the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Iraq came under British mandate. Heated and prolonged negotiations ensued regarding which companies could invest in the Turkish Petroleum Company. The TPC was granted exclusive oil exploration rights to Iraq in 1925. The discovery of a large oil reserve at Baba Gurgur provided the impetus to conclude negotiations and in July 1928 an agreement was signed which determined which oil companies could invest in TPC and reserved 5% of the shares for Gulbenkian. The name of the company was changed to the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929. Actually. the Pasha had given him the entire Iraqi oil concession, but he gave the rest away to corporations able to develop the whole, growing wealthy on the remainder. He reputedly said, "Better a small piece of a big pie, than a big piece of a small one."
Gulbenkian amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his Paris home. His four-storey, three-basement home on Avenue d'Iéna was said to be crammed with art, a situation ameliorated in 1936 when he lent thirty paintings to the British National Gallery and his Egyptian sculpture to the British Museum. He was president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) from 1930–1932, resigning as a result of a smear campaign by the Soviet Armenian government.
In 1938, before the beginning of the Second World War, Calouste Gulbenkian incorporated in Panama a company to hold his assets in the oil industry. It was Participations and Explorations Corporation from which came the name Partex (currently, this oil company, now called Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation, is a subsidiary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon).
By the outset of World War II, he had acquired diplomatic immunity as the Iraqi Minister in Paris. He followed the French government when it fled to Vichy and served there as the Iranian minister. He left France in late 1942 for Lisbon and would live there until his death in an hotel suite at the luxurious Aviz Hotel. His Armenian wife died in 1952. They had two children: son Nubar and daughter Rita, the wife of Iranian diplomat Kevork Loris Essayan.
At the time of his death in 1955, Gulbenkian's worth was estimated at between US$280 million and US$840 million. After undisclosed sums willed in trust to his descendants, the remainder of his fortune and art collection were willed to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian), with US$300,000–400,000 to be reserved to restore the Echmiadzin Cathedral in Echmiadzin, Armenia, when relations with the Soviet Union permitted. The Foundation was to act for charitable, educational, artistic, and scientific purposes, and the named trustees were his long-time friend Baron Radcliffe of Werneth, Lisbon attorney José de Azeredo Perdigão, and his son-in-law Kevork Loris Essayan. The Foundation established the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian) in Lisbon to display his art collection.
For general background concerning the development of the petroleum industry in the Middle East see
For Gulbenkian as a collector see