Mr Five Per Cent: The many lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the world’s richest man

Reviewed by David Cutler, Baring Foundation

‘Any man who dies rich, dies disgraced’ wrote Andrew Carnegie. So what are we to make of Calouste Gulbenkian who died in 1955 worth roughly £5 billion in today’s values?

Jonathan Conlin, an art historian, has written a very thorough life story of Gulbenkian. It is in many ways a fascinating book showing how central the oil business was to geo-politics in the first half of the 20th century. Philanthropy, though, was not central to Gulbenkian’s intense, energetic life, nor can it be to the biography.

A shifting aspect of Gulbenkian’s life was his relationship to national identity. Born in 1869 to a prosperous family of Armenian merchants in Istanbul, he was educated in London, was granted British citizenship, moved to Paris and thence, via Vichy France after the Nazi occupation, to Portugal. Throughout his life, he was seen by many countries as either stateless or independent, which he used to his advantage, exploiting his Ottoman background to play off East and West interests vying for oil in the Middle East.

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