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Control of 5% of the Middle East oil market - Gulbenkian Collection in Lisbon


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Calouste Gulbenkian was a British-Armenian oil genius who was likely the richest man in the world for a good portion of his life. While blessed with good fortune (pops was the Mesopotamia tax collector for the Ottomans etc, which didn’t hurt) he made the bulk of his vast fortune from his own ability, especially after having to flee one of the genocides of the Turks against the Armenians. Long and very controversial  story short, he was instrumental in the founding of Shell and a number of  other major oil fields and companies, and became known as Mr 5 Percent for this approximate control of the market.

This allowed him to fund an incredible private art collection and one of the best Greek (Roman too based on the designation of most coins below?) coin collections ever. Some of the highlights of this are shown at his foundation’s private museum in Lisbon. Some or all of these may have been shown here before (the coin catalogue is sold from time to time too) so my apologies if this is duplicative, but the coins are so drawdroppingly amazing that when you walk into the room, it’s hard not to drool. 

Huge gold medallions of Alexander, Apollo, Athena, Caracalla. Perfect decadrachms of Syracuse, mint fresh coins from throughout the Greek world. The medallions are classified by the museum as Roman so I posted this under general rather than Greek but are early 200’s AD likely minted  in Macedon, found in Egypt in 1902 and acquired by Gulbenkian later from Loeb and JP Morgan’s “library”. Their words…

With apologies for my potato phone here are a few-

Caracalla, followed by Alexander-



and here one of Alexander shown at an angle for the relief-





Athena -


And a couple of older Greeks, because why not.



There’s a wrinkle too. Why did I have to come to Lisbon to see this (not that it’s a huge ordeal!). Because the stupid head of the National Gallery in  London refused the collection. It was offered in full to the UK (and the coins are just one part of a massive art collection that was also offered). Gulbenkian also offered to build an annex to house it all, but what largely a product of British snobbery means he felt slighted (he was described as a slippery benefactor and the War Office declared him an alien for not leaving his Paris residence in 1940 etc) and the director of the gallery literally refused the donation. There are of course different versions and self-justifications of the tale but this is its essence.  It ended up in Portugal which now not only houses this spectacular collection but also the associated vast foundation that pumps 100 million euros into the broad arts economy each year, the vast majority within Portugal. They also donate (apparently to prove a point) 0.1% of their annual gifts to the UK. 100k. A point well made!

Museum is free Sunday afternoons!

One last one and I can’t say (I think!) please feel free to post your large gold medallions of Alexander but please do post anything relevant -




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The Aboukir medallions are amazing. Makes you wonder what the craftsman/engraver was doing outside of being commissioned to produce these?!

It says Gulbenkian acquired 11 of the 20 found - I wonder if those 11 were all donated to Lisbon, and all on display ?

There's also 5 in Berlin, and 3 in The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.






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@Heliodromus yes all 11 are on display. It’s a real shame but there’s very little information on anything more, even dates. Eg this is the full “description “ of an entire section, just inventory numbers and >99% of the coins are in the vaults -


@Brennos sadly much of the garden is closed just now but the Artemis statue is still guarding it. I had to intervene to stop my boys from deciding by touch if her arrow was real or carved.

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Those are some amazing pieces. Did you know that Caracalla, who hoped Alexander was one of his ancestors, outfitted an entire legion with Macedonian gear? This included the spears needed to form the phalanx. Caracalla's mental stability was in question by the end of his reign.

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