The son of a wealthy family of Armenian merchants, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was born in Scatter, the present day Üsküdar area of Istanbul, on March 29th, 1869. He was educated at a local school until he was thirteen, studied in Marseilles and later went to King's College, London, where, in 1887, he was awarded a diploma with distinction from the Department of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In 1902 he acquired British nationality.
His professional life was bound up with the petroleum industry and he played a leading role in its development in the Middle East.
In the ambit of the industry, he took part in important negotiations at the world level, namely, the setting up of the Turkish Oil Company the stock of which was divided among the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Royal Dutch Shell and Deutsche Bank. 5% of this stock went to the negotiator, Calouste Gulbenkian. In 1928, when the stock of Turkish Oil was redistributed, still at the centre of negotiations, Gulbenkian was again awarded his usual percentage and became known as "Mr. Five Percent".
The owner of a colossal fortune, this highly successful businessman was to become one of the most remarkable art collectors of the 20th century.
He defined himself as eclectic, but discerning, and the collection very much mirrors his way of life. His origins are evident in the quantity of Islamic objects he collected and his European education is reflected in his interest in the great masters of painting, sculpture and the decorative arts.
Seeking a peaceful haven during the war years, Calouste Gulbenkian arrived in Lisbon in April 1942, and spent the last thirteen years of his life in the Hotel Aviz, where he died on July 20th, 1955.
His gratitude for the kind hospitality he received that "I have never felt anywhere else", led him to donate, between 1949 and 1952, important artworks to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. These comprised painted tiles from the Middle East, an Egyptian sculpture of a lion from the Ptolomaic period, a Greek torso dating from the V century BC, as well as a remarkable collection of European art. This included pieces by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Van Dyck; Reynolds; Largillière; Hubert Robert, Reynolds, Hoppner, Dupré, Courbet and Rodin. One of the highlights was a donation of great symbolic significance, the portrait by Joos van Cleve of Eleonor of Austria, the third wife of Manuel I of Portugal (c. 1469-1521).
Calouste Gulbenkian's final expression of gratitude to Portugal was to specifically state in his will his wish to create a foundation bearing his name, where his collection in its entirety could be reunited and preserved under the same roof.
The present installations of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, established in 1956, through the efforts of José Azeredo Perdigão, his Portuguese lawyer, were inaugurated in 1969. The foundation, which has artistic, educational, philanthropic and scientific objectives, has, over the years, expanded its role in Portuguese society and acquired remarkable international prestige.