CULTURE

Private antiquities to go public

What drives each art collector to amass works is a very personal matter of taste and cultural value, but it is usually what gives an art collection a subjective yet distinctive mark. In the case of George Tsolozidis, a renowned antiquities collector in this country, the incentive was to document the history of Greek civilization from Neolithic times to the foundation of the Greek State in the 19th century. This acknowledgedly ambitious project also had a more unusual side to it, expressed in the preference for small, delicate objects that mirrored private rather than public life. A large series of medical instruments from the fourth-sixth centuries AD added yet another unique touch to the collection and reflected George Tsolozidis, the practicing dentist. During his lifetime, Tsolozidis collected more than 3,000 antiquities. He lived with them around him, learned to partly restore them and survived long enough – he died less than a year ago – to see parts of his collection documented and exhibited in major Greek museums. The initiative for making the collection known to a larger public came from his daughter Mata Tsolozidi-Zissiadi, who now manages the collection mainly by exhibiting and documenting – with the help of specialized archaeologists – selected parts of it but also by making several donations to some of the country’s most prestigious museums; among them the recent gift of the medical instruments to the Benaki Museum, an institution which Tsolozidis held in much esteem. Although Mata Tsolozidi-Zissiadi continues collecting antiquities – if not with her father’s fervor – her priority is to publicize the collection she grew up with and witnessed her father put together. For that reason she set up Evropi, a non-profit cultural society and through it has organized a number of exhibitions in the past decade. The most recent was held at the Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice this past summer. Before that, a selection of Byzantine items from the collection were shown at the Museum of Byzantine Civilization in 2001 and the medical instruments series participated in the Hours of Byzantium exhibition at the White Tower. Earlier, in 1994, the collection was exhibited at the Old Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki under the general title «7,000 years of Greek Art» (the exhibition was partly subsidized by the Thessaloniki Cultural Capital 1997 budget). Plans for the near future include the transfer of the recent Venice exhibition to the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens; it is for this forthcoming occasion (in autumn 2003) that Tsolozidi-Zissiadi is presenting the exhibition at a lecture she is giving this evening at the museum. For Tsolozidi-Zissiadi, showing the collection is her way of paying tribute to her father and a gesture that must carry emotional value. For the public finally gaining access to the collection, its display is an example of the close relationship between private collectors and the State. It is one with benefits for both sides: Museums enrich their collections and their exhibition program and collectors get official approval for their collection. On a more practical level, they find help in documenting and putting in order an array of objects collected through the years. «The priority is to document the collection’s items. After so many years the collection has been sorted out, we have the best pieces now. When you first start collecting you buy everything, then you start clearing things out,» says Tsolozidi-Zissiadi. «My father liked to acquire the goods and loved to restore them and store them but never thought of selling them afterward. He liked spending a lot of time by himself and with the collection. He never had the time, as the first generation, to start exhibiting and taking care of the cultural promotion of the collection. We, the second generation, thought of the exhibitions.» George Tsolozidis was a Greek of the diaspora who, like many of his compatriots, left Egypt during the Nasser regime. By the time he came to Athens to study dentistry in 1947, he already owned several Egyptian, Coptic and Hellenistic antiquities. He built contacts with dealers worldwide, bought antiquities and promptly declared them to the State with a consistency and sense of responsibility that earned him an official antiquities dealer’s permit soon after he arrived in Greece. His special preference was for the antiquities of the Hellenistic period and for the small, delicate items such as jewelry, amulets and magic stones. Like many antiquities collectors, Tsolozidis helped repatriate many of those to Greece. Some of them are now finding their way into state museums through his family’s donations. «It is important to remember that museums are largely built from private art collections,» says Tsolozidi-Zissiadi. As a collector herself (she won permission to become an antiquities collector through exams), she feels that a collector’s role has not been appreciated enough and thinks that there are misconceptions that need to be corrected. «Unfortunately, people still confuse the notion of the collector with that of the illicit dealer in antiquities,» she says. But she acknowledges the benefit of working closely with the State and stresses the importance of having the pieces preserved whenever an exhibition takes place. One of those exhibitions will be held at the Byzantine Museum in the fall. Like the rest that have already taken place or are planned for the future, it will bring Tsolozidi’s wish to make her father’s collection known worldwide one step closer to fulfillment.