Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man by Jonathan Conlin - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

The Art of the Deal

Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man



When Calouste Gulbenkian died in 1955, The Times compared him to Ferdinand de Lesseps and Cecil Rhodes, two business visionaries who created commercial kingdoms. In the first half of the 20th century, Gulbenkian made deals in the international oil business, took percentages and accumulated a vast fortune. No previous book about him comes close to matching Jonathan Conlin’s. Although this is primarily a business history, Conlin studied at the Courtauld Institute, among other places, and some of the most interesting passages concern Gulbenkian as an art collector and museum philanthropist.

Gulbenkian was a man of astounding self-reliance, with almost invincible willpower. He managed his vast interests with very few staff. He was, said his daughter, ‘a Special Number’ who lived on his own terms and behaved as he wanted. Rules, including taxation regulations, existed for him to evade or defy. Without any trace of conscious eccentricity, he was different from other people; his manners, his methods and his moods will fascinate many readers.

He was born in 1869 in the Constantinople suburb of Scutari. His father was a trader in kerosene of Armenian heritage. He studied physics at the Ecole de Commerce in Marseille and at King’s College London before making an expedition to Baku in 1888. This was his sole visit

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