Known as “Mr. 5 Percent” for repeatedly keeping a five percent share of the huge oil companies he financed, the Armenian businessman Calouste Gulbenkian’s incredible private art collection goes to show what a small slice of a huge pie can beget.
Born in Constantinople in 1869, Gulbenkian was partly educated in France and became a British citizen in 1902. The course of his very colorful life took him all over Europe and the Middle East in the early 20th century, creating one petroleum company after another. He usually kept 5 percent of the shares of each firm for himself, making him one of the wealthiest men on the planet by the time he died.
The oil magnate’s world travels and great wealth allowed him to amass an impressive collection of art, including some European classic paintings and a strong showing of Middle Eastern art as well. For years he kept his growing art collection at his home in Paris, and then willed it to Lisbon, where he often stayed, to be kept in a museum built to house his treasures.
Gulbenkian’s private collection consisted of about 6,000 pieces, now called the Founder’s Collection. Today, his namesake museum is divided into collections of Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Islamic, Armenian, and Far Eastern art, with additional sections of Western art including sculpture, manuscripts, paintings, and decorative arts. The museum is set in a large garden in central Lisbon that is also named after Gulbenkian.
Know Before You Go
The museum is easily visited by subway. A separate modern art museum (the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Modern Collection) and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation are also located within Gulbenkian Park.