834) Calouste Gulbenkian back in his hometown

I owe this article to the Sabancı Museum, however belatedly, as the Gulbenkian exhibition closed over a month ago at the end of May.

Calouste Gulbenkian has always been a familiar and friendly name in Turkey. Known as "Mr. Five Percent" of the Iraqi petroleum riches, he started as Mr. Fifteen Percent of Azeri oil at the turn of the last century at the beginning of his career as a broker. Calouste Bey was born in Üsküdar in the Istanbul of the 1860s to a well-to-do established Armenian family. He was educated by the French monks of St. Joseph before his eminent father sent him to London to study engineering, which he dutifully did.

He was a success in the petroleum deals in the newly discovered Baku fields of Azerbaijan in the 1900s. With his hefty commissions as a middleman and broker, Gulbenkian happily settled with his wife and children and a big fortune in opulent houses in Paris and London.

His other family was his big collection of rare books in perfect condition with incredible illumination and priceless miniatures. He collected classical and Impressionistic paintings and extremely rare İznik ceramics of the 16th century, Ottoman Turkish velvets and embroidered fabrics, etc., etc.

He admitted that he did not specialize in collecting particular items. His guiding principle was to collect objects of diverse nature that appealed to his exquisite taste, with the help of some expert advice, as he admitted. His second guiding principle as a collector was what was bought from antique dealers or auctions had to be well preserved, in tiptop shape for an antique and lastly it had to be the best of its class in standard and value. This is how this huge collection, now to be found in Lisbon, was accumulated over the years.

Gulbenkian, as an Ottoman subject, was full of nostalgia all his life for anything Ottoman Turkish, reminding him of his childhood and his teens in cosmopolitan Istanbul. His adult years in Europe helped him develop his keen appreciation of Western and European art. In that sense, his collection has grown into a natural blend of two different cultural threads. This is particularly noticeable in the heavy decoration of his over-stuffed stately mansions that were more than a home, both in Paris and London, as seen in photographs enlarged on the walls of the Sabancı exhibition.

When I was touring the exhibition I was for a while the only visitor in the beautiful and spacious Sabancı Museum premises. Two ladies later appeared, making us a minority of three. It was a weekday. An hour later students from the Zographion Greek Lycee crowded the exhibition rooms. I mention this because this exhibition, important though it was, came unfortunately as an anticlimax to the eventful and hugely successful Picasso exhibition. Moreover, antique books with miniatures without providing magnifying glasses at the entrance do not give the visitor the opportunity to fully enjoy and appreciate an exhibition like this, which was in my opinion no substitute for visiting the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, although the Sabancı exhibition did give an idea for those who are not able to go to Lisbon of what the collection in its entirety is all about.

Throughout his life, until his death, Gulbenkian had a Turkish diplomatic red passport, as he was a high-profile personality. He died in Lisbon in 1952. While he was living in London he frequently attended Turkish Embassy diplomatic parties, always wearing a red carnation in his buttonhole and riding in the black London taxi cab he owned for reasons of convenience, rather than a Rolls Royce or a Bentley, which he could easily afford.

Gulbenkian lived a happy and full life in an exemplary manner, donating all his worldly possessions to the Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum. With this exhibition he was finally brought back to his own Istanbul as a distinguished Armenian gentleman of nobility of spirit, as a welcome son, better late than never, thanks to the timely initiative of the curator of the Sabancı Museum, Nazan Ölçer.

Sunday, July 9, 2006
From my notebook



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