SLIPPING THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

”Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955), oil baron, philanthropist and art connoisseur was born in Istanbul to a prosperous Armenian banking family. When he was 14, his father, Sarkis Gulbenkian, gave him 50 piastres for successful schoolwork. Calouste raced off to the bazaars with his “riches” to buy old coins, which he loved. When he returned home, however, he was chastised by his father for squandering his gift instead of saving it.Gulbenkian would remind his family “when he was in the right sort of mood” that his purchase of the coins laid the foundation for his collection,…”

He was a man whose charm was lessened by an ineluctable suspicion. He had feelings of constant betrayal  which increased his isolation and loneliness. He was by nature a recluse. If he had to go into a public room he preferred to charge head down, thus to minimize the chance of catching anyone’s eye. People, he felt, diminished his vitality, lessened his capacity for work, and wasted his intellectual force.

September Morn, by the nineteenth century French academic painter Paul Chabas, was likely Gulbenkian's only lapse of taste. He gave it away to an American banker, and it later was on display at the Metropolitan Museum

September Morn, by the nineteenth century French academic painter Paul Chabas, was likely Gulbenkian's only lapse of taste. He gave it away to an American banker, and it later was on display at the Metropolitan Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian amassed one of the greatest art collections ever; and many  of its most valuable works were the result of greasing the palms of Soviet bureaucrats. Gulbenkian was a 5% owner of the Iraq Oil Company and was extremely useful to the Soviet government in finding buyers for dumped Russian petroleum in their desperate and chronic need for foreign exchange in hard currency like the U.S. dollar.For Glubenkian  this  poker match was a lucrative enterprise. He killed two birds with one stone; his advice netted the money the Soviets required, while the dumped oil ultimately depressed the value of Royal Dutch Shell stock, with whose management Gulbenkian was having one of his periodic quarrels.

But, unexpectedly, best of all, and to his delighted surprise, a third bird was also killed by the magic ball from the slingshot. The Soviet commissars asked what he would like in return for his help and delightedly accepted his recommendation that their meagre holdings of foreign exchange be further improved by converting some of their works of art into gold.Surprisingly, this had not occurred to them, and they immediately offered to sell Gulbenkian many of the supremely beautiful treasures now in the museum at Lisbon.

Art Nouveau jewellry by Rene Lalique occupies a privileged position in the Gulbenkian Collection. The ornament above is one of among a hundred works by Lalique.

Art Nouveau jewellry by Rene Lalique occupies a privileged position in the Gulbenkian Collection. The ornament above is one of among a hundred works by Lalique.

The prices were reasonable, and everyone was happy except the curators of the Hermitage. They let it be known that in their opinion the government was as naive about the sale of oil on canvas as it was about the sale of oil from the ground. Stung by this criticism, the commissars turned to a young Berlin art dealer named Matthiesen, who had communist connections, and asked him to come secretly to Leningrad, look at the collection, and tell them something about market value. Importantly, the emphasized, however, that under no circumstances would anything ever be sold. Matthiesen gave them the information they wanted and returned to Berlin.

Some months later Gulbenkian, who had his own spies,  summoned him to Paris and inquired about his Russian trip to which Matthiesen, lied, being conscious of the secrecy of the mission. Gulbenkian called him a liar, took him into a room, and showed him the works of art from the Hermitage that he had just purchased at Matthiesen’s greatly increased valuations. Matthiesen was in shock. He could not believe the Soviet commissars would sell the very paintings he had told them were irreplaceable.

This 1745 patel of Duval de l'Epinoy by Maurice Quentin de La Tour is considered one of the finest in the world. Gulbenkian paid Henri de Rothschild in Portuguese money because of British wartime controls. The price for the pastel and a jasper ewer was a million escudos, about $34,000

This 1745 patel of Duval de l'Epinoy by Maurice Quentin de La Tour is considered one of the finest in the world. Gulbenkian paid Henri de Rothschild in Portuguese money because of British wartime controls. The price for the pastel and a jasper ewer was a million escudos, about $34,000

Gulbenkian then offered a deal. He would pay Matthiesen to be his Russian agent. But Matthiesen, aware that he had stumbled on invaluable information, decided that he could make more money elsewhere and refused. In a rage, Matthiesen was thrown out of the house and Gulbenkian swore he would never buy another work of art from the Soviets. Matthiesen then began wheeling and dealing with American Andrew Mellon’s dealer’s who scooped up a score of masterpieces from the Hermitage for display in the National Gallery.

Rubens’s portrait of Helena Fourment, his young second wife, belonged to Catherine The Great, then to the Soviet state. Taking advantage of the Russian need for foreign exchange, Gulbenkian paid $753,750 for the painting and fifteen gold and silver ”objets d,art”:
" value="true" />

‘”Helena Fourment” shown ( below ), by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) was Gulbenkian’s favorite painting and is one of the highlights of this show. Helena was Rubens’s second wife; when they married, she was seventeen and he was fifty-eight. Gulbenkian acquired it triumphantly in a cloak-and-dagger deal from the Hermitage Museum, out-manuevering no less an opponent than Sir Joseph Duveen, the legendary dealer to some of the world’s wealthiest people, who offered more money than Gulbenkian finally paid. Duveen was acting for himself and for several millionaire partners whose names were not broadcast. Facing a shaky economy in an insecure post-war period, the Soviet authorities needed “hard cash” and decided to sell some famous works of art, but insisted on discretion, which meant secrecy. They needed to “save face”, and Gulbenkian, who had established contacts with the Soviet commercial agency in Paris, completely understood the concerns of the Russians with regard to adverse publicity. The American rivals placed their faith in the powerful dollar and used tactics that offended the Soviets. Duveen lost out to Gulbenkian’s stealth and quiet savvy.” ( Michele Leight )

Rubens, Helena Fourment c. 1630.

Rubens, Helena Fourment c. 1630.

”About a hundred years after Rubens painted a full-length portrait of his Wife, England discovered it. And for whatever reason they could not get enough of it. The so-called Rubens Wife trend in 18th century English fashion was something that either did not go out of style or kept coming back in style. It also bred the Van Dyck trend in fashion, which did not discriminate between the sexes. Both of these Dutch trends in clothing were pricey and would only be sported by the rich at masquerades and in portraits. These displays in portraits varied from trying to directly mimic Helena Fourment’s dress and pose to variations on both. Many of the sitters would hold the ostrich feather to show the connection to the old portrait,…”

Thomas Gainsborough, 1775

Thomas Gainsborough, 1775

In art, as in life, Gulbenkian was an admirer of beautiful women. Elizabeth Lowndes-Stone, the wife of a country gentleman, sat for the bridal portrait above, by Thomas Gainsborough in 1775. Bought through an antique dealer for $168,750 in 1923, the painting had belonged to Baron Alfred- Charles de Rothschild.

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Miscellaneous, Visual Art/Sculpture/etc. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>