Calouste Gulbenkian, “Mr. Five Percent,” was a businessman and a philanthropist who amassed the largest collection of art ever owned by one person. In 1940, he was called “mystery man of the Near East oil fields” by The New York Times.
He was born in Scutari (Üsküdar), in Constantinople (now Istanbul), in 1869. His father was an oil importer/exporter who sent him to be educated at King’s College in London, where he studied petroleum engineering. In 1889 he traveled to the Russian Empire to examine the oil industry at Baku; he wrote a book in French on his impressions (Paris, 1891). He escaped the Hamidian massacres of 1896 with his family to Egypt. In 1902 Gulbenkian became a naturalized British citizen and five years later he was involved in the merger that resulted in the creation of Royal Dutch/Shell, from which he emerged as a major shareholder. He earned the nickname “Mr. Five Percent” due to his habit of retaining five percent of the shares of the oil companies he developed.
In 1912 he was the driving force behind the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), a consortium of the largest European oil companies aimed at cooperatively procuring oil exploration and development rights in Iraq, then under Ottoman rule. After Iraq came under British mandate in the aftermath of World War I, the TPC was granted exclusive oil exploration rights in 1925 and an agreement was signed three years later determining the companies which could invest in TPC. It reserved 5% of the shares for Gulbenkian. TPC became Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929.
Calouste Gulbenkian was president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) from 1930-1932, but he resigned as the result of a smear campaign by the Soviet Armenian government.
He had amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his four-story, three-basement house in Paris. In 1938, Gulbenkian incorporated in Panama a company to hold his assets in the oil industry. From “Participations and Explorations Corporation” came the name Partex (now called the "Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation,” a subsidiary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal.
He left France in late 1942 for Lisbon and lived there until his death in 1955. At the time of his death, Gulbenkian's fortune was estimated at between $280 million and $840 million (today this would be $10 billion to $30 billion). After undisclosed sums willed in trust to his descendants, the remainder of his fortune and art collection was willed to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, with US$300,000–$400,000 to be reserved to restore the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. It established its headquarters and museum in Lisbon to display his art collection. Since its establishment, the Foundation has granted huge sums for Armenian and non-Armenian charitable, educational, artistic, and scientific purposes.