Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Knowing Gulbenkian better

The name Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955) is not familiar to most Indonesians.

Born in Scutari (Istanbul, Turkey) into a rich Armenian family, Gulbenkian studied in King's College, London, where he graduated with distinction in the Department of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 1887. He later became a British citizen and had his business headquarters in London.

His luck began when his book La Transcaucasie et la Pininsule d'Aphiron - Souvenirs de Voyage (The Transcaucasia and the Peninsula of d'Aphiron - Travel Souvenirs), published in 1891, attracted the Ottoman Minister of Mines' attention. He was then invited to draw up a report on the oil fields of the Ottoman Empire.

From that point, he played a further role in petroleum affairs in the Middle East that made him a key figure in the early development of the petroleum industry in the region and later become well-known in oil industry circles around the world.

Brought up in a carpet merchant's family, his taste for art grew from his early years. He began collecting art works when he was only 14. His hobby lasted for 40 years!

Gulbenkian was known for having a rare taste, for which the beauty and quality of objects were more important than commercial value. Instead of negotiating with the best-known dealers, who were his competitors in the world market, Gulbenkian preferred secret transactions, carried out by specific agents whom he trusted. The agents would constantly submit objects that they hoped might please him.

"Even museums would always contact him first if they wanted to sell items from their collections," said Calouste Gulbenkian Museum curator Maria Deolinda Cerqueira.

Appraising these objects became a real obsession for him. They were examined by him for days, sometimes weeks.

"Speaking about art, he always said 'only the best is good enough for me'," Cerqueira said.

In early 1900, Gulbenkian set up a small, private museum in his residence in Paris. The collection existed for his pleasure and he would pass many hours alone admiring it from every angle.

"He used to call them 'my children' and lived with them in his daily life," Cerqueira added, showing pictures of the interior of Gulbenkian's Paris house, which was full of art works.

The public was very surprised to find out that his European paintings and Egyptian sculptures were on loan to the National Gallery in London from 1930 and 1950 and later to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Gulbenkian, who once lived in Paris and London, then moved to Portugal in 1942 during World War II in search of the peace that did not exist at that time in most European countries.

It was the collector's desire that his 6,000 art works must be kept under one roof. After making important bequests to his children and establishing life pensions for other family members and persons who had worked with him for many years, he created a foundation bearing his name and headquartered in Lisbon, donating the remainder of his fortune for cultural, artistic, educational, scientific and charitable purposes.

The specially constructed Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in the foundation's compound is now the permanent home of the collection and was inaugurated in Lisbon in 1969.

-- Ida Indawati Khouw