”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.
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.
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.
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”: