Greece’s first certified conservator goes back in time

“All I had was my Vespa, my tools and my courage… I was entering a profession that was completely unknown at the time.” Tasos Margaritof shows me his professional license. It is stamped with the number 1, meaning it was the first to ever be issued in Greece, making him the country’s first official art restorer and conservator.

“This job was so widely unknown that I remember a lady asking me if I could look at her plumbing while I was at it,” the man who single-handedly turned the art of conservation in Greece into a science told Kathimerini during a recent interview over coffee at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in central Athens.

Before him, acclaimed artists such as Dimitris Pelekasis and Fotis Kontoglou were called on for the restoration and conservation of great works and artifacts.

“Now that I’ve seen how you do it, I’ll stop,” Margaritof remembers Kontoglou telling him once.

Margaritof, now 90, has trouble reminiscing on a lengthy career that made him one of the country’s finest conservators of ancient art, historical religious icons and mosaics without getting choked up.

A legend in his field, he has handled countless masterpieces, traveled all over Greece, from Santorini and Delos to Vergina and Mystras, and breathed new life into murals from the late Christian, Byzantine and late Byzantine eras, 12th-century hermits’ crypts in Italy, Jerusalem and Sinai, where he was responsible for photographing and cataloguing the icon collection of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. There, in the seclusion of a monk’s cell, he salvaged one of the earliest surviving icons of Christ, produced using the encaustic technique and dating to the 6th century.

“My parents were privileged; my father, an archon in Raidestos (present day Tekirdag in Turkey), was not rich… He was filthy rich and he controlled all of the commerce in Eastern Thrace. My uncle was the last mayor of Raidestos,” says Margaritof. “On my mother’s side, her father was a wealthy merchant in Peran [a neighborhood in Constantinople]. My father received a dowry of 22,000 gold coins. In 1922 they came to Athens during the population exchange. They got no help. None of my father’s degrees and diplomas were recognized in Greece even though he spoke English, French, Turkish and Greek. He became a simple accountant and never amounted to more than that.”

Margaritof was born in 1925. “I had my first taste of chocolate in 1933,” he says, laughing. “I had a difficult childhood.” During the Nazi occupation of Greece he joined the EPON youth resistance movement and “went wild.”

Margaritof got his first introduction to art through his sister, who was a painter and a student of Constantinos Parthenis.

“I always had a hand for it. I would paint, carve and so on,” he remembers. “I started looking for work in 1950. I wanted to go to radar school to work on [Aristotle] Onassis’s ships, but when my father found out, he did everything in his power to prevent me. So my first paid job was painting Easter eggs. It was my cousin’s idea and unfortunately it foundered fast. At some point, a friend from America visited our home and gave me two pieces of satin, asking me to paint the Parthenon, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and an Evzone [elite Greek soldier] on them. She loved them and told me to show them to someone. But I was embarrassed. Eventually she convinced me to approach a souvenir shop on Ermou Street. It took me three days standing outside the shop to muster the courage to go in. On the last day I braced myself with a couple of glasses of wine and that’s how I managed it. That was it. I couldn’t churn out scarves fast enough.”

Margaritof eventually befriended the owner of the store, Yiannis Mavromatis, who helped him learn the ropes and get his work into bigger stores around Athens. He branched out into making ties and children’s clothes, which were often labeled “Made in Paris.”

“I was making as much as 4 dollars an hour. I had come up with a system that allowed me to work on four canvases with one brush at the same time. I would start with the lighter colors and move up to the darker ones, so I wouldn’t have to stop to wash my brush. I did very well with my little factory,” says Margaritof.

A few years later a family friend who believed in Margaritof’s talent paid the 12.5 gold coins needed for him to take an eye-opening trip to Italy. The original plan was for a weeklong visit, but Margaritof ended up staying for seven years, studying painting and sculpture at Rome University of Fine Arts and restoration at the famed Istituto Centrale del Restauro.

“Fate made me a restorer,” says Margaritof. “I was at a friend’s house and I accidentally broke a vase. I took it home to fix it and ended up restoring it. When she saw it she couldn’t believe it was the same vase.”

Margaritof returned to Greece in 1958 even though he had received an offer to teach in Rome and took up a job as a restorer at the Museum of Byzantine and Christian Art in Athens, working from a small basement room that had been assigned to him by the director at the time, Giorgos Sotiriou. All he had was a small table, a chair and a small wooden chest of tools.

“I worked in these conditions up until Stavros Baltoyiannis took over the museum in 1963 and we set up a proper workshop,” says Margaritof.

In 1962 Margaritof and Manolis Hatzidakis, then director of the museum, traveled to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to – as he says – “see what we could save from the damage done to the Crusader art” by a restoration team headed by Kurt Weitzmann from Princeton University.

“I remember that we had funding of just 120,000 drachmas when Weitzmann had had three trucks full of equipment,” says Margaritof. “On the first night I climbed up a ladder to take down two icons, one of the Apostle Paul and one of Saint Peter, which Hatzidakis wanted to take a look at. Set between them, I saw Christ and yelled out to Hatzidakis, ‘Boss, there’s a real masterpiece here!’ ‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘Sotiriou studied it; it’s from the 13th century,’ he told me. ‘What are talking about, boss? It’s in the encaustic style,’ I answered.”

Margaritof noticed that the icon had been painted over several times and gradually took away the layers, a project that lasted from 1962 to 1967, to reveal the face of Christ Pantocrator in a painting that is believed to date to the mid-6th century.

In 1967, Margaritof supervised the restoration of the famed Akrotiri frescoes on Santorini, including those depicting the spring flowers, the fisherman and the crocus collectors. Spyros Marinatos, the archaeologist responsible for the excavation of the site, believed that one of the frescoes contained depictions of lakes and rivers. When he pointed this out to Margaritof, however, the restorer countered that he thought the traces of blue still evident were of some animal’s tail. Sure enough, a few years later, Santorini’s famous Blue Monkeys had been restored.

The 1970s were marked by work that he did on the site of the ancient royal tombs at Vergina in northern Greece, where he helped Swiss researchers salvage pieces of fabric found in a gold funerary casket.

Then, in 1985, Margaritof made a name for himself as the first restorer to successfully detach separate layers of a painting when restoring an 18th-century icon of the Three Hierarchs. He was able to bring to the surface an earlier painting of the three from the 14th century. Both icons are currently on display at the Byzantine and Christian Museum.

“What skills must an art restorer have?” I ask.

“There are 32,” Margaritof says, almost automatically. “I made a list once, but I can’t remember them all anymore. The most important is patience. You need to be observant and careful; you can’t rush and, more importantly, you can’t try to hide any possible mistakes. In my opinion restoration is simply about keeping a work of art in a good state. The rest – cleaning or making aesthetic interventions – is supplementary work, which must of course be done only by a restorer. There are many who intervene to make a piece appear, in their opinion, prettier. They may paint on it and that defies the concept of restoration. If you ever see a restorer using a paint brush, be wary. Another common mistake is cleaning the wood on icons because this erases the traces of the piece’s historical journey.”

As our conversation comes to end and Margaritof gets ready to leave, weary with the exertion, I ask whether he has any regrets.

“The number of masterpieces that have left Greece,” he responds, adding: “I’m also upset that I was not allowed to work on the 14th-century icon of Archangel Michael [at the Byzantine and Christian Museum]. I believe there is something more under the surface.”

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