In the final instance, despite its manifest good qualities, all this makes Mr Five Per Cent a tough read. Those with thirst for the history of the oil business and a strong head for acronyms will lap it up. Art buffs, meanwhile, might be better advised to save the money for a trip to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum itself.
But Conlin struggles to invest his subject with much human warmth. Despite a certain filial piety towards his father, Serkis, Gulbenkian shocked the Armenian diaspora by his neglect of his relatives and the duties to the community owed by his position... The sheer volume of the research can occasionally threaten to overwhelm the narrative. Although Conlin strives to convey twists and turns coherently, sometimes the intricate accounts of deals numb rather than inform.
The art historian Jonathan Conlin, the first modern biographer of this frustratingly elusive figure, does a fine job of digging beneath the legend. Gulbenkian was born in Istanbul in 1869 into a rich Armenian banking family. His father was keen for his son to move in wider international circles, sending him first to Marseilles and then London to finish his education. As Conlin shows, this was the first age of what we is now called globalisation, and the Gulbenkians already imported cloth from Manchester, glass from France and oil from Baku. The young Calouste was perfectly placed to profit from the vast expansion of the oil industry at the turn of the 20th century, presenting himself as an honest broker for firms hoping to tap the huge oil potential of the Ottoman Empire.
In a magisterial new biography, published to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Jonathan Conlin gives a rough estimate of Gulbenkian's fortune... “Surely Gulbenkian,” argues Conlin, “has something important to tell us at this moment in history”, when free enterprise and movement are under attack from both Left and Right. It is hard to see what that might be, but his story is a fascinating one.
Mr Five Per Cent is written precisely, with flashes of dry humour, and Conlin wears the depth of his research lightly. The story he tells is one of a businessman playing off great powers in the Middle East, exploiting loopholes in the world’s financial architecture, avoiding accountability, making a fortune for himself, and spending it on a life of luxury. Gulbenkian may have been a unique talent of a past age, but his heirs are all around us.
This is an excellent book, guiding us with a sure hand and a lucid talent for exposition through the very different worlds of connoisseurship, family trauma and the making of millions. Conlin frankly admits when one of Gulbenkian’s business dealings, intended to be obscure, remains impenetrable. He compels unwilling admiration for the sheer tenacity of his hero over decades, while leaving us in no doubt of the hellish narrowness of Calouste’s focus.
Mr Five Per Cent is a remarkable book, if only because Gulbenkian is not an easy subject. His single-mindedness — in the pursuit of art treasures, sex or money — renders him rather dull. Yet Conlin somehow constructs an engaging tale about this one-dimensional man. Every page is packed with figures, but there are also delightful details that provide welcome contrast to all those labyrinthine deals. An uncharacteristically foolhardy transaction with the Russians, for instance, left Gulbenkian with two tons of caviar and no buyers. He gave the stuff away. Gulbenkian fascinates not because he’s particularly interesting in and of himself, but rather because of the shady deals, broken friendships and family turmoil that littered his life.
No previous book about him comes close to matching Jonathan Conlin’s... Conlin is a calm, lucid, fair-minded writer who resists every temptation to cheap sensation or glib judgement. Unlike many business historians, he has kept his book at a readable length. He has the self-confidence to evaluate his material and to omit or pare superfluities, rather than make a burdensome heap of every detail and statistic that he has found. He does Gulbenkian proud.