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The University of Southampton
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Crude History

A project exploring the life and legacy of the Anglo-Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, who helped establish the firms we know today as Royal Dutch-Shell and Total, and personally owned 5% of Middle East oil production - hence his moniker, "Mr Five Per Cent". Gulbenkian also formed a world-class art collection and endowed one of the world's largest philanthropic organisations - both based in Lisbon. Southampton historian Dr Jonathan Conlin has written a new biography of Gulbenkian, contributed to television documentaries and curated an exhibition to share his findings with an international public.

For more information visit the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation website.

Baku Oil-Gusher
Portrait of Mr Gulbenkian
Portrait of Mr Gulbenkian

Born in Istanbul in 1869, by the time Anglo-Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian died in Lisbon in 1955 he was the world's richest man, known as “Mr Five Per Cent” for his personal holding of 5% of Middle East oil production. Conlin's first book, the definitive history of the National Gallery, London (2006), revealed Gulbenkian's abortive plans to leave his wealth and art to that institution. Further investigation into Gulbenkian’s testamentary plans suggested that there was more to be told. The story of Gulbenkian’s life is the story of the emergence both of today’s global oil industry and of one of the wealthiest philanthropic organisations in the world: the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

With Gulbenkian's 150th anniversary (2019) on the horizon, the Trustees of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation wanted to commission an objective, scholarly, but also readable  account of their founder's life. They selected Conlin on account of his expertise in the history of collecting and previous scholarship on Gulbenkian. In 2012 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Foundation and the University of Southampton, under which the former agreed to contribute towards a five-year research project. In addition to granting access to over 600m of archival material, much of it new to historians, the Foundation granted Conlin complete freedom to publish his findings uncensored.

The ramifications of Gulbenkian's personal and professional networks proved to be so extensive that Conlin and his team undertook archival research in public, private and corporate archives in ten countries, working in nine different languages. Conlin’s research revealed that Gulbenkian owed his fortune, not to any oil expertise or illicit ties to the Ottoman sultan, but to his skill organizing oil financing and brokering global oil cartels. It further demonstrated Gulbenkian's role helping to establish the oil giants we know today as Shell and Total. A true “citizen of nowhere” who lived in hotels and held four passports, Gulbenkian also formed one of the world's great art collections, now the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. He intended his Foundation to be a gift to “Humanity” rather than any single nation. Had his wishes been observed, his would have been the first global philanthropy.

Hailed by The Economist as a “meticulous biography”, Conlin’s 2019 book Mr Five Per Cent: the Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, World’s Richest Man was published in five languages, as well as being issued in paperback and audiobook formats. For related media coverage and events, click on the “Media” tab, above.

The Gulbenkian Biography Project has had a number of impacts beyond the 2019 book Mr Five Per Cent, including exhibitions, radio documentaries and a youth engagement project. The greatest impact, however, has been the project’s role as catalyst in a national debate within Portugal surrounding the origins of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. How important a role should “founder’s intent” play in shaping the future of this philanthropy? What challenges would Gulbenkian identify as most important, were he alive today? How can the man become a living presence in the museum that bears his name? These are some of the questions Dr Conlin continues to explore beyond the project’s successful completion, with ongoing support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The centenaries of World War I and of the Armenian Genocide provided a context within which the project’s preliminary findings were presented to the public, through a 2014 exhibition at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon (opened by Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk) as well as an episode of the prestigious radio documentary series Une Vie, Une Oeuvre (France Culture).

Upon its publication in January 2019 Conlin's biography entered the UK non-fiction best-seller lists, reaching third place in the Evening Standard's “London Bestsellers” while the Portuguese translation spent several weeks at number two in Portugal. The implications of the biography for the Foundation were clear to journalists inside and outside Portugal, with Conlin interviewed on NewsTalk radio (Dublin), German public radio, RTP television and radio (both Lisbon) and the BBC World Service's “The Forum”. The Portuguese newspaper Público's headline welcomed Conlin's book as follows: 'After 60 Years, A Biography To Help To Shape the Future of the Gulbenkian'.

At the launch of the book at the Foundation headquarters in Lisbon in late January 2019 Conlin, Foundation President Isabel Mota and the Portuguese Head of State, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa delivered speeches addressing the biography’s implications for Gulbenkian's legacy to Portugal and the world. The biography formed a focus of the Foundation's celebrations of Gulbenkian's 150th birthday, not only at their Lisbon headquarters, but in their London and Paris branches as well. In February 2020 it announced the creation of the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity, an annual award of one million Euros intended to engage civil society in addressing global challenges such as climate change.

The project provoked a debate on whether “founder’s intent” should direct a foundation’s agenda. Staff from twenty UK-based foundations attended a symposium at the Foundation's UK branch in February 2019, at which Conlin took part in a discussion with Gulbenkian's great-grandson and the Chief Executive of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Hosted by Janet Morrison, Chair of the Association of Charitable Foundations, the symposium suggested that “founder’s intent” could be “something that facilitates continuous development and vision”, rather than being “a dead hand”.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon is one of Portugal’s most important tourist sites, and visitors often express curiosity about the man behind the collection. The project has sought to enrich their understanding of the connections between Gulbenkian and his collection. The Museum invited Conlin to contribute a series of labels to their permanent galleries, allowing visitors to learn more about Gulbenkian's taste and relationship with the art market. He delivered the keynote introduction at “Collecting: modus operandi, 1900-1950”, an international conference on the history of collecting held at the Museum.

The Foundation’s Quem e Calouste?-Who is Calouste? programme invited young adults aged 15-25 to use music, the visual arts and written word to tell the Foundation what Calouste – refugee, tycoon, paterfamilias, visionary – meant to them today. All in all the Gulbenkian Biography Project has made this mysterious, quasi-mythical figure into a living presence for a range of publics, within Portugal and around the world. 

Dr Ozan Ozavci (University of Utrecht)

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Jonathan ConlinSenior Lecturer; Impact Champion
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