Raffi Portakal

Raffi Portakal

For the past 40 years, a two-story building in Istanbul’s famous Nişantaşi quarter in the Şişli District has housed a number of rare art collections. Its walls are adorned with works of prominent painters and rare manuscripts are also on display. The sign on the façade bears the name “Portakal.” Raffi Portakal, the son of Aret Portakal and grandson of Yervant Portakal, is the third generation of his family to manage this art house.
Raffi Portakal is one of Turkey’s most famous auctioneers and art curators. He inherited the profession and lifestyle from his family. They’ve been at it for a century: Raffi’s grandfather Yervant founded the Portakal Art and Auction House in 1914. Yervant ran a store/gallery in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and the city’s Pera District. Yervant’s son Aret continued the family business.
“I was lucky that my grandfather and father had already made a name for themselves and the family. I’m the third generation in the business. It’s not an easy job. When you consider that our art house is older than the Republic of Turkey itself, you can imagine how difficult it’s been to keep it going in such a tricky market,” Raffi says.
Raffi Portakal begins his family’s story with the name of Hagop Kourken, a choirmaster and editor who founded a school in Constantinople and authored several works. Hagop was Raffi’s maternal great-grandfather. He was a supporter of grabar (classical Armenian) and attempted to resurrect its use in Armenian schools. “During the massacres, the intellectuals of Bolis were rounded up and imprisoned, including my father’s grandfather. Hagop Kourken wasn’t around; he died in 1915.”

Aret Portakal auctions the famous collection of Satvet Lütfi Tozan. Raffi Portakal walks among the crowd, displaying collection pieces. 1974.

Raffi’s paternal grandfather Yervant Portakal, born in Constantinople in 1883, began collecting art and organizing auctions in 1914. He conducted more than 30 auctions in the homes and palaces of Ottoman nobles. “My grandmother wanted to buy some bed sheets from a palatial home. My grandfather got angry and told her that if she wanted them, she had to go to the auction the next day,” Raffi recalls. “At the auction, he himself placed the highest bid on the sheets and bought them to give to my grandmother.” 
Vergine Portakal, Raffi’s paternal grandmother, was a classical music lover. Her daughters, Ashkhen and Rita, received a musical education and would later become prominent names in the artistic Armenian circles of Istanbul. Aret, Vergine’s son, would carry on the family’s auction business. 

         Raffi’s paternal grandmother Vergine Portakal (seated) with her children Aret, Ashkhen and Rita

On his mother’s side, Raffi’s family hails from the Black Sea town of Ordu in northeastern Turkey. In 1915, when Armenians were deported from Ordu, Raffi’s grandfather Boghos agha Evrensel already had two children. When he and his wife heard about the massacres of Armenians elsewhere, the couple left one of the children in the care of a Turkish family and the other with a Greek family and fled. Raffi’s grandmother was a skillful seamstress and that saved the couple. When they reached Malatya in Eastern Anatolia, she began to work for the mayor’s wife. Her twin girls, Manig (Raffi’s mother) and Anahid, were born in Malatya. In 1918, when the anti-Armenian aggression subsided, the family moved to Samsun, and later back to Ordu. Unfortunately, they were unable to find the children they had left behind. The family never saw them again.

After Raffi’s mother graduated from school in the 1940s, she wanted to continue on to college. But there were no institutions of higher education in Ordu. In response to the pleas of the girl and her family, Manig’s father sent her to study at a medical school attached to the American Hospital.

This decision shaped the family’s destiny. It was at the hospital that Manig treated Aret Ohanes for typhus.
“He recovered, and then he wanted to date my mother. She knocked him back, so my father was forced to trick his way back into hospital by pretending to be ill. He was admitted and, once again, my mother treated him. He told her to meet his family and said he wanted to marry her. They got engaged and my father went to Ordu to get her family’s permission,” Raffi smiles. After Manig and Aret were married, Manig’s entire family relocated to Istanbul from Ordu. In subsequent years, the family dispersed to different corners of the globe.

                    Boghos agha, Raffi Portakal’s maternal grandfather, and his family in Ordu

Raffi Portakal was born in Istanbul in 1946 and attended the Mkhitarist School in Şişli. Afterward he studied psychology at Istanbul University. Years later he traveled to Paris to hone his skills as an auctioneer. Back in Istanbul, Raffi joined his father in collecting and auctioning art. “My father was actually a great artist; an artist of the auction. Many who attended his auctions were amazed at what they saw; their mouths were agape,” Raffi says proudly.
In 1973 Raffi opened his own gallery. He then began to specialize in obtaining and selling Ottoman paintings and manuscripts. “I valued the fact that they were scarce and unique. Compared with today’s market they were ridiculously underpriced. Paintings that fetch millions today would go for $100,000 to $200,000 back then. I made a name for myself in the business.”

                                Raffi Portakal serves as auctioneer while his father Aret assists

In 2004 Raffi Portakal began to cement his relationship with European collectors and staged Turkey’s first ever exhibition of Picasso’s canvases. He proudly keeps the press cuttings from that show. “This is Hürriyet, the biggest newspaper in Turkey. And look at this headline, ‘Picasso in Nişantaşi.’ And what about this, ‘Picasso and I’,” Raffi says. Picasso was soon followed by Monet, Renoir, Dali and other world-famous names.
Raffi also organized the collection and museum of Sakip Sabanci, a prominent Turkish business tycoon and philanthropist. This collection has been shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre in Paris, Berlin’s Deutsche Guggenheim and other prominent institutions. Raffi also led a group that curated a collection belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and he admits that he’s always had a soft spot for Armenian artists. He’s especially fond of Ivan Aivazovsky, whose works can sometimes be seen on display at the Portakal gallery. “Aivazovsky has always been a pinnacle, an idol, for our family. I was a small boy when my father explained the uniqueness of Aivazovsky to me.”

                                                      Raffi Portakal and his daughter Maya

The Portakal Art and Auction House conducts at least two auctions per year. “We want our name to grow in stature with each auction, to find quality items that are unique that you cannot find in the market or elsewhere. The Portakal family has always valued prestige over money. This is the unwritten law of the family and it’s a kind of sickness,” Raffi explains. In addition to organizing exhibits and auctions, the art house continues to publish numerous books and catalogues.

Today, Raffi Portakal continues the family business with his only child, his daughter Maya. Together, they aim to open small galleries to display unique pieces of art in different parts of the world.
The Portakal formula for success goes like this: “We must not fall behind in terms of what is going on in the world. We will also do that which isn’t being done. A vision is important. So is courage and a sense of timing.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.