Islamic Art at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

Museu  Calouste Gulbenkian Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Connoisseurship is an elusive concept.  What makes wealthy and refined collectors tick? Where does their obsession for the object come from? The Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon celebrates the 150th birthday of founder Calouste Gulbenkian’s birth with a show “A Gosta pela Arte Islâmica” that tries to answer those questions.

Gulbenkian was born in Üsküdar, then a village on the Asian shore, opposite Istanbul, with a view of Aya Sofia and the Old Seraglio, into a wealthy and westernized Armenian-Ottoman family. After studying engineering at Imperial College London, a visit to Baku on the Caspian Sea, the then world center of petroleum, determined his future career as an oil man. Painstaking negotiations with the Ottomans, Germans, British and French rewarded Gulbenkian with a 5% share of the Iraq Oil Company, the nickname “Mr 5%“, and fabulous fortune.

The exhibit features a chart which tracks the parallel increase in Gulbenkian’s spending on art and the price of oil, driven by the thirst for the stuff of the world’s armies, navies and automobiles. That makes it clear how Gulbenkian was able to amass his collection. Already in the 1910s, Gulbenkian started to buy colorful ceramic ware from 17th century Izmir and Iznik and delicate mosque lamps from Egypt and Syria. In the course of time, his focus shifted to Ottoman and Persian Safavid brocades and carpets. In the 1930s and 40s, he acquired Safavid illuminated manuscripts.


Mosque lamp, Cairo, 1354-1361
Mosque lamp, Cairo, 1354-1361

More interesting is the question, why did he collect this particular art? In Gulbenkian’s youth, European collectors did not appreciate the arts of Turkey or Iran, which they considered simply functional or at best decorative. The generation of Art Nouveau and Arts and Craft, however, took interest in color, design and craftsmanship. Practiced eyes like those of Emile Gallè and William de Morgan turned to this art for inspiration, making artistic glasswork and tiles inspired by the East. The exhibit tellingly displays side-by-side some original Turkish or Persian works with French and English copies.  Enchanting Persian “Ašqdâns” or bottles for tears, are hard to distinguish from a Louis Tiffany work.

There has always been confusion as to what to call this art. Initially Europeans, familiar with the Alhambra, termed it “Moorish Art”. The exhibit catalogues the different phrases used in the first great exhibitions in London, Paris or Vienna: “Muhammadan”, “Les Arts d’Islam”, “Muslim Art”. This identification with the religion of Islam is belied by the presence in the show of many liturgical objects from the Ottoman Greek and Armenian communities, which share the same masterful craftwork and style of the other displays. The show’s curators may have been playing with the public, drawing them in with the name “Islamic Art”, and showing them that Turkish and Persian art is the product of many peoples of different religions and nationalities. The Museum missed a trick to point out that many of the Mughal paintings were the work of Hindu artists.

In any case, once European collectors understood the beauties of Ottoman and Persian design and craft, a huge flood of antiquities poured into Europe. Who could turn down the chance to acquire the extraordinary Safavid Lapis and glass wine flask, or the piece of silk brocade?

Sensing an opportunity, enterprising and indefatigable Armenian antiquarians began to scour Anatolia, Syria, Iraq and Iran for rare pieces. They opened luxurious shops like that of Dikran Kelekian on Place Vendôme in Paris. One display in the show features a collection of letters written in English, French, Ottoman and Armenian, posted from grand hotels in Alexandria, Geneva, Tehran and Damascus that these globe-trotting merchants exchanged with Gulbenkian to apprise him of their activities on his behalf.  New Yorkers will recognise the name of Hagop Kervorkian, who not only procured many important pieces for Gulbenkian, but also gave his own collection to the Metropolitan Museum.

The enthusiasm for Islamic Art touched other oilmen as well, like John Rockefeller and Paul Getty.  Sometimes they were able to write bigger checks than Mr 5%, snatching coveted pieces from his grasp.  Gulbenkian was especially relieved when he saved the “Emperor” Safavid carpet (formerly in the Imperial collection of Vienna) from being sent off to California.  As major collectors and museums started to compete for pieces, Gulbenkian enjoyed the thrill of the game, in the knowledge that his eye and his Armenian network gave him good cards to play.


Persia, late 12th or early 13th century
Persia, late 12th or early 13th century

Where Gulbenkian truly succeeded was in building a remarkable collection, where he was an early and eager acquirer.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that specialists began to realise how superb the Safavid book illustrators of Heart and Tabriz really were. A dogfight ensued to secure these royal manuscripts, which were being sold out of Russian and Turkish collections. Gulbenkian acquired several exquisite works of this golden age of Persian book art, which form the piece de resistance of this exhibit.

To return to the opening question, Gulbenkian started by acquiring Turkish and Syrian pieces because it was fashionable, and it probably reminded him of his childhood by the Bosphorus. Once he was bitten by the bug, his connection to the Armenian antiquarian network constantly whetted his appetite with the possibilities of acquiring ever more choice pieces. His eye enabled him to recognize masterpieces. His competitive nature would not allow him to be shown up by Getty or Rockefeller.  The result is Lisbon’s remarkable collection, the highlights of which are on display on the occasion of Mr 5%’s 150th birthday.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)