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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Angela Merkel to Chair Portugal’s Gulbenkian Prize Jury

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, at one time one of the world's richest people, was most proud of his art collection and his role as a “business architect”.


Angela Merkel accepted her first position -- as the president of the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity jury -- since she left the post of German chancellor in December 2021, according to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (June 30).

Merkel succeeded Jorge Sampaio, the former president of Portugal (1996-2006), who died in September 2021. For more than 15 years, Sampaio had collaborated with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which awards the annual Prize for Humanity, worth 1 million euros.

The foundation, which describes itself as one of the largest in Europe, established the prize in 2020 to distinguish people, groups or organizations that have done outstanding work in the fight against the climate crisis.

Ironically, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was created largely with profits from oil whose harmful effects the Prize for Humanity seeks to reduce by helping to cross the bridge from old to new technology.

The prize’s potential areas of recognition are the reduction or removal of greenhouse gas emissions; increasing the resilience of people and the environment to climate change; and the acceleration of the decarbonization of the economy through the mobilization of financial resources, public or private, according to Diario de Noticias (June 30).

The first Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity was awarded to the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who distributed the money to various environmental and humanitarian projects in the Southern Hemisphere.

Last year, the prize was awarded to the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which comprises more than 10,600 cities and local governments from 140 countries, including Portugal. Among other endeavors, the prize money supported energy transition and climate resilience in Africa with large-scale projects in five cities in Senegal (supply of drinking water) and one city in Cameroon (development of energy efficiency solutions), according to Diario de Noticias (June 30).


The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon houses the philanthropist's private collection of more than 6,000 pieces.


What is the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation?

The Gulbenkian Foundation was created in 1956 by the last will and testament of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, an Armenian businessman, art collector and philanthropist, who lived in Lisbon from 1942 until his death in 1955, according to the foundation.

Established in perpetuity, the Gulbenkian Foundation’s main purpose is to improve the quality of life through art, charity, science and education. It directs its activities from its headquarters in Lisbon and its delegations in Paris and London, with support provided by Portugal in Portuguese-speaking African countries (PALOP) and East Timor as well as in countries with Armenian communities.

The Gulbenkian Foundation has a museum, which houses Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian’s private collection, and a Modern Art Center (CAM), which holds modern and contemporary Portuguese art; an orchestra and a choir; an art library and archive; a scientific research institute, and a garden in the center of Lisbon for educational activities and meanderings.

In conjunction with cultural activities, the Gulbenkian Foundation develops pilot projects and, with scholarships and grants, supports other institutions and social organizations, according to the foundation.

The balance sheet as of December 31, 2020, presented a total of 3,332,190 thousand euros and a total capital fund of 3,011,732 thousand euros, including a transfer to the capital fund of 124,144 thousand euros, according to the auditor, Deloitte & Associados (April 22, 2021).

Who Was Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian?

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955) mediated negotiations that led to the exploitation of the rich oil fields in Al Jazeera (Iraq) in the first half of the 20th century, according to the foundation.

Gulbenkian “only had three great interests in his life: oil, art and horticulture", his grandson recalled what his mother said about him, and he remembered his grandfather planting in their garden in France and chiding him to take care around the paintings, tapestries and sculptures in the house.

Gulbenkian was born in Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Gulbenkian family business was both an import/export house and a bank. The company traded in carpets, wool, other commodities, and kerosene from the Caucasus region, according to the foundation. By 1892, S. and S. Gulbenkian formed a network of family-based trading partnerships based in London, Marseilles, and in Varna, Bulgaria, and other cities across the Ottoman Empire, according to the foundation.

At the age of 14, Calouste Gulbenkian studied in Marseille and then London, where he attended King’s College School. Soon, he moved on to King’s College London’s Department of Applied Sciences, where he studied a range of subjects, excelling in Physics. In 1887, he became an Associate of King’s College, the original qualification awarded to students.

At 19, in 1888, he traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus region to learn more about the oil business. He wrote a travelogue, La Transcaucasie et la Peninsule d’ApcheronSouvenirs de Voyage – as well as articles for La Revue des Deux Mondes and other French periodicals.

These publications established Gulbenkian’s reputation as an oil expert, according to the foundation. An Ottoman ministry asked him to write a report on the oil-rich lands which the Sultan had acquired in Al Jazeera (Iraq).

At 23, in 1892, Gulbenkian married Nevarte Essayan, and the couple had two children. The Essayans had privileged access to the Ottoman court, but good connections were not enough to protect Gulbenkian and his family from anti-Armenian pogroms.


A photograph by U.S. journalist, William Sachtleben, of 321 bodies of Armenians killed in Erzerum and gathered for burial in November 1895


Massacres of Armenians

The majority of Armenians were poor peasants, but a few found success as merchants and artisans, according to Britannica. Although Muslims dominated Ottoman society, a small number of Armenian Christian families attained prominent positions in banking commerce and government. However, the prominence and influence of the well-educated and cosmopolitan elite became a source of resentment and suspicion among Muslims. In the 19th century, Armenians struggled against the perception that they were a foreign element within the Ottoman Empire and that they would eventually betray it to form their own independent state.

In August 1896, in an effort to raise European awareness of persecution, heavy taxation and forced assimilation of Armenians, 28 armed revolutionaries stormed the British, French and Ottoman-owned Imperial Ottoman Bank in Constantinople, according to The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (2005).

According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed mobs “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.” Between 6,000 and 7,000 Armenians were killed, according to The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2003).

The telegraph spread the news of the massacres around the world, leading to significant coverage in the media of Western Europe and North America.

The United States President Grover Cleveland responded to widespread support for the Armenian cause galvanized by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was created by five recent graduates of Williams College in western Massachusetts, reported The New York Times (November 10, 1896). Cleveland condemned “the rage of mad bigotry and cruel fanaticism,” the “not infrequent reports of the wanton destruction of homes and the bloody butchery of men, women, and children, made martyrs to their profession of Christian faith.”

In the 1890s, up to 300,000 Armenians were massacred on the implicit orders of Sultan Hamid who viewed them as a threat to his power, massacres commonly known as the Hamidian massacres, according to A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006). Later, during World War I, the Armenian genocide occurred, primarily through the mass murder of 1 million on death marches to the Syrian Desert and the forced Islamization of Armenian women and children.

Fortunately, for Gulbenkian, his wife’s family included a ferry line in their business interests. After the 1896 storming of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, the 27-year-old man, his wife and baby son, born only two months before the Imperial Ottoman Bank occupation, escaped by steamship to Alexandria, Egypt.

Gulbenkian adapted to the situation as he was wont to do throughout his life.


In Egypt, Gulbenkian and the Great Sphinx of Giza, a limestone statue of a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion


London, Oil Negotiations

According to the Gulbenkian Foundation:

“Gulbenkian’s interests in finance soon brought him back to London and its stock exchange, then the world’s largest, where he was caught up in the boom in South African and Australian mining shares. Gulbenkian quickly gained an in-depth knowledge of corporate finance. As much a financier as an oilman (a label he rejected), Gulbenkian invested widely and well. Meanwhile, in 1901, he pulled out of several family trading partnerships, including S. & S. Gulbenkian, leaving his two brothers and uncle to continue without him.

“Gulbenkian may not have been the first to foresee the importance of the Al Jazeera (Iraq) oil reserves, but he had the vision, the contacts and the persuasive skills to mediate between international investors and the Ottoman government. In particular, he sought to convince both of the benefits of exploiting such reserves in a rational manner, through international collaboration rather than price wars.”

In his 30s, in the early 1900s, Gulbenkian struggled to persuade several Caucasus-based oil magnates of the benefits of entering into joint ventures with Rothschild Freres, Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank, according to the foundation.

In 1907, the Royal Dutch Shell Group was created through the amalgamation of two rival companies: the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij) of the Netherlands, founded in 1890 to develop an oilfield in North Sumatra, according to Jakarta: Portrait of a Capital 1950-1980 (2015) and the “Shell” Transport and Trading Company Limited of the United Kingdom, founded in 1897 by brothers whose father had owned an antique firm that expanded into importing seashells, after which the company “Shell” took its name, according to The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1991).

The merger was driven largely by competition with the Standard Oil Company (1870-1911), an American oil production, transportation, refining and marketing company, according to A History of the International Chemical Industry (2001). At its height, Standard Oil was the largest petroleum company in the world, and its success made its co-founder and chairman, John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest people in modern history. Its history as one of the world’s first and largest multinational corporations ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was an illegal monopoly.

Gulbenkian negotiated many of the Royal Dutch Shell Group’s acquisitions of oil firms in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and Romania as well as the Caucasus, according to the foundation.

“The 1% or 2% commissions he secured as payment proved very lucrative as oil shifted from simply being a source of kerosene (used for lighting) to a source of gasoline, fuel oil, waxes, lubricants and chemicals like toluol (used for making TNT),” according to the foundation.

“A Business Architect”

In the 1910s and 1920s, Gulbenkian’s relationship with the Royal Dutch Shell Group was close, but he maintained his independence.

“A true internationalist, he was able to view diplomatic and economic questions from a number of perspectives simultaneously – and to present himself as an honest broker without prejudices and without ties to any one empire, nation-state or company.

“He turned what might have been a disadvantage – being an immigrant from a very different culture – into an advantage, bringing East and West together. He always saw himself as a business architect, who had the vision, balanced competing interests, and designed structures, rather than as an oilman.”

Although Gulbenkian took British citizenship in 1902, he served both the Ottoman and Persian empires in a diplomatic capacity. He was appointed financial advisor to the Ottoman missions in Paris and London in 1909 and 1910. In 1919, the Persian (later Iranian) Embassy in London appointed him to a similar position.

Mr. Five Percent

According to the Gulbenkian Foundation:

“For decades, the western European powers, and in particular France, had exploited their position as holders of Ottoman debt to impose their will on the so-called Sick Man of Europe,” according to the foundation. “All of these European powers had their eyes on parts of the Ottoman Empire, and many already had appropriated large chunks of territory for themselves.

“Gulbenkian’s role in founding the National Bank of Turkey, following the Young Turk Revolution (1908) (when Gulbenkian was 39), was to establish a truly international source of financing for the Ottoman Empire’s modernization, including the development of its oil reserves and other natural resources.

“In 1912, the National Bank of Turkey set up the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) to exploit the exceptionally rich oilfields in Al Jazeera (Iraq). Royal Dutch Shell held a 25% stake in the company, the National Bank of Turkey 35% and Deutsche Bank a further 25%.

“The remaining 15% belonged to Calouste Gulbenkian.

“In early 1914, the Turkish Petroleum Company was reorganized. Royal Dutch Shell’s great rival, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (British Petroleum, or BP) had a rival claim to the Al Jazeera oil concession, and, more importantly, strong support from the British Foreign Office. In order to accommodate Anglo-Persian, Gulbenkian agreed to reduce his share from 15% to 5%. . . .

“The rest of the world knew him simply as Mr. Five Percent, one of the world’s richest men. . . .

“A few months later, World War I broke out, however, and Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) was left in a state of suspended animation. World War I brought the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and it led to Deutsche Bank’s 25% of TPC being transferred to a French company specially created for that purpose, the Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (CFP, now Total). The French had been slow to realize the strategic importance of oil, and Gulbenkian continued to coach the French authorities as well as CFP on how to handle their rivals. Meanwhile, the oil-rich lands of Al Jazeera ended up within the new British mandate of Iraq, from whom the TPC secured a concession in 1925.”

Red Line Agreement of 1928

At age 59, Gulbenkian played a major role in the Red Line Agreement of 1928. It bound all partners to a self-denial clause that prohibited any of the partners from developing oilfields within the former Ottoman territory, according to the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.

The agreement was signed by Anglo-Persian Company (British Petroleum, or BP); Royal Dutch Shell Company; Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (Total); Near East Development Corporation (ExxonMobil), and Calouste Gulbenkian, who retained a 5 percent share.

The deal became known as the Red Line Agreement because none of the participants was certain of the pre-war boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Gulbenkian drew the boundaries from memory with a red pencil. In fact, the question had been resolved well before negotiations. Nonetheless, the name stuck, according to the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.

“(The Red Line Agreement) marked the creation of an oil monopoly, or cartel, of immense influence, spanning a vast territory. The cartel preceded easily by three decades the birth of another cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which was formed in 1960.”

According to the foundation: “Calouste Gulbenkian had ensured that the great powers would act together in an ordered manner. . . . Although he continued to seek new international partnerships, notably between France, Persia and the Soviet Union, the Red Line was his greatest achievement.”

Having spent 30 years based in London, Gulbenkian spent most of his time in Paris after 1918.


A favorite sculpture was Houdon’s Diana, which belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia


Art Pieces, “My Children”

Gulbenkian’s art collection, influenced by his travels and personal tastes, comprises more than 6,000 pieces, dating from antiquity until the early 20th century, including pieces from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Babylonia, Armenia, Persia, Europe and Japan. His collection of paintings includes works by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt; Hals, Gainsborough and Carpaccio, and Renoir, Monet and Degas. A favorite sculpture was Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Diana, which belonged to Catherine the Great of Rusia and which Gulbenkian bought from the Hermitage Museum in 1930.

“Gulbenkian derived considerable pleasure from his collection, which he referred to as his ‘children’,” according to the foundation.

“As his collection expanded and as he grew older, Gulbenkian became ever more concerned about how to preserve his achievement, and also how to avoid paying taxes on his legacy.”

In 1937, when he was 68, he began discussions with Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery in London, about a future Gulbenkian Institute to be built next to the museum.

According to the foundation:

“He was declared an ‘enemy’ by the British Government during the Second World War because he had followed the French Government to Vichy (officially independent, it adopted a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany) as a member of the Persian diplomatic delegation. The British temporarily sequestered his share of the Iraq Petroleum Company (as TPC was now known). Although both steps were regulations of a kind imposed by all countries during wartime, Gulbenkian chose to take them as personal slights. He began looking elsewhere for a permanent home for his art collection and the international foundation he planned to endow. He considered the National Gallery of Art in Washington as a potential home for his collection, working closely with John Walker,” who became its director in 1956.

“At the time of his death in 1955, Gulbenkian does not appear to have decided where he wanted his collection to be housed and simply left it to his trusted advisor, Cyril Radcliffe, to take such decisions as he saw fit. One thing was clear: Gulbenkian wanted his collection of antiquities, sculpture, painting and furniture displayed together under one roof, rather than scattered across the galleries of a larger museum.”

Final Years in Lisbon

During World War II, Gulbenkian initially stayed in France. However, in April 1942, he decided to seek refuge in a neutral country: Switzerland or Portugal.

“Gulbenkian settled on Portugal because of its geographical situation: if necessary, he could escape by sea to the United States. He remained until his death; perhaps because of the stable society, the low taxes, and the absence of a prying media. In Lisbon, he felt welcome – he wrote later ‘that he had never felt anywhere else’ such hospitality as in Lisbon, a quiet city in a Europe devastated by war,” according to the foundation.

For 13 years, he lived at Hotel Aviz on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo in Lisbon until he died in 1955, aged 86. In 1904, the owner and director of the newspaper, O Seculo, Jose Joaquim da Silva Graça, ordered the construction of a mansion for his permanent residence. In 1931, it was converted into a luxury hotel. At the time, Hotel Aviz and Palacio Hotel de Buçaco were the only luxury accommodations in Portugal.

Gulbenkian’s will left generous legacies to his children and lifetime pensions for other relatives. Gulbenkian also created an international foundation that would bear his name, inherit the remainder of his fortune and be managed by his trusted lawyer, Lord Radcliffe, to whom he entrusted the mission to act so as to benefit humanity. He also wanted his foundation to reflect what he considered his major achievements: his art collection and his role as a “business architect”, conceiving structures to bring together different nations, groups and interests, according to the foundation.

“After his death, arduous negotiations with the French and Portuguese governments ensued to establish the terms under which Gulbenkian’s art collection would be allowed to leave France, as well as the legal basis for the foundation. In 1960, the entire collection was brought to Portugal, where it was exhibited at the Pombal Palace in Oeiras from 1965 to 1969. Fourteen years after the death of this illustrious collector, his wish was fulfilled when the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum opened in Lisbon.

“Presently, the Foundation – one of the largest foundations in Europe – is trying to act more internationally, partly to tackle the major issues facing society but also to honor the Founder’s wishes. The Foundation is active in collaborating with other foundations on international issues.”

What can be more international than climate change?

Besides Angela Merkel, the jury of the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity includes Miguel Bastos Araujo (Research Professor at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid and Professor of Biogeography at the University of Evora, Pessoa Prize 2018); Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Founder and Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Research on the Impact of Climate and Professor Emeritus at Tsinghua University in China); Johan Rockstrom (Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor of Earth System Sciences at the University of Potsdam); Miguel Arias Canete (former European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action); Rik Leemans (Director of the Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen and Wageningen University and editor-in-chief of the international journal, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability); Runa Khan (Founder and Executive Director of the non-governmental organization, Friendship, and President of Global Dignity Bangladesh); Sandra Diaz (Biologist, Professor of Ecology at the National University of Cordoba and member of the Royal Society), and Sunita Narain (Director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi and Editor of Down to Earth magazine), according to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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