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The big white box is opened. Maria Mertzani and Maria Argyropoulou gently lift the paper cover as though wary it could shatter. Inside the box, stored with care, is a painting. The face is familiar. It is that of former Queen Anne-Marie, painted in 1965.
“This painting was found on the ground floor, without a frame,” explains Argyropoulou. Today, Kathimerini is showing it to the public for the first time.
We're in the storage rooms of the Ministry of Culture, viewing a collection of over 17,000 objects (and groups of objects) that were discovered at the former Royal Estate of Tatoi, northwest of Athens, and now safe thanks to the efforts of a group of specialized ministry scientists supervised by Nikolaos Minos.
The objects have been photographed, catalogued and stored in white boxes.
Our two guides are specialists in the field. Mertzani is the head of the ministry's Directorate of Conservation of Ancient and Modern Monuments, while Argyropoulou is chief of research in the same department.
The next item they show us is a plastic doll. It looks rather contemporary but the women handle it with such care you'd think it was made of crystal.
The conservation of these objects was a challenge. “Plastic is a new material but it's not the only one. A doll has hair, fabric and metal elements; compound elements that we had never worked with before,” says Mertzani. The doll is carefully wrapped again in layers of thin paper, placed back in the box and returned to its place on the shelf.
The value of the treasures found at Tatoi is inestimable.
“The finds at Tatoi range from antiquities, cars and carriages to furniture, paper material [books, contracts, etc], photographs, the palace's household wares and objects belonging to the family,” explains Mertzani.
I ask what sort of paintings were found. “Close your eyes and imagine: It was all there, from objects of little or no value to works by great masters.”
The process of recording, removing and conserving the objects found at the former royal estate began in 2004 and was completed (with funding from the state and the European Union) in 2012. It was just the second time workers from the Ministry of Culture had entered the premises. The first was as mere supervisors, an experience they would rather forget.
It was 1993, when the government at the time granted the former king, Constantine, permission to remove nine cargo crates of objects, some of which were sold in 2007 at auction by Christie's. No one knows how many items were stolen in a number of looting raids between 1974 and 2003. Others succumbed to the damp that has permeated the buildings after decades of being closed. The only complete record of the contents of the estate was carried out in 1973 (Government Gazette 278A).
Why weren't the valuable objects removed the day after the abolition of the monarchy? Why were they allowed to rot or rust for decades? And why were certain valuable treasures allowed to be removed from Greek territory?
Such questions no longer serve any purpose. What is important is what happens from here on, because despite significant losses, the objects that have been rescued from Tatoi are an invaluable part of the country's heritage. “Thanks to the findings at Tatoi, we have a snapshot of an entire era,” says Mertzani.
“This includes everyday items such as bottles of soda, beer and wine, to dolls, fashion items and magazines. It is a snapshot of a moment [December 1967] but also describes daily life and this is important because the Greek people can see parallels with their own lives in these objects,” she says.
The 17,000 objects are in storage, safe, but they will be underutilized until someone decides whether and what should go on public display. Other pieces, including electrical appliances, cars and carriages, continue to rot on the estate.
The buildings are collapsing.
The door to the small guesthouse next to the guard post is broken and the ground floor is filled from floor to ceiling with wooden chairs; it's easy to imagine what could happen. But the entire issue of the estate and what ought to be done about it is moving at snail's pace, and it's not just because of the state's notorious delays.
“There was a lot of hesitation for decades,” says Mertzani. “We needed to let some time go by so we could assess the issue objectively. I think that this is a good time for it now.”
From 1872 to 1967 Tatoi was a part of Greece's history and a major stage for political developments. As well as serving as the royal family's summer residence, the estate was also used for several government swearing-in ceremonies and many political meetings.
Historian Costas Stamatopoulos, president of the Elliniki Etairia (Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage), has spent years studying the history of the estate. The results of his labors are the comprehensive two-tome book “The Chronicle of Tatoi” and the shorter “Tatoi: Tour in Time and Space” (Kapon Editions).
“Tatoi became a part of the history of the modern Greek state from the moment that King George I chose it as his summer residence. As we know, the first expression of interest in the area was in 1870,” he explains.
“Tatoi belonged to a Phanariote Greek, Skarlatos Soutsos, who was chief of court and a minister under several governments. The initial negotiations fell through because King George realized that Soutsos was trying to cheat him. He eventually returned from a trip overseas and restarted the process because he had fallen in love with the location, which had been pointed out to him by Ernst Ziller, who was friends with both men. Finally, in May 1872, the purchase contract was signed at Soutsos's house, which later became Giorgos Rallis's house, on the corner of Korai and Panepistimiou streets [in downtown Athens]. From 1872 until 1967, Tatoi was one of the most important houses in the country and a place where decisions of national importance to Greece were taken.”
When Tatoi was sold to the royal family it was little more than a farm. “When George I bought Tatoi we know it had a mill, a few huts scattered here and there and a five-room house. George, Olga and their three children squeezed into this house. Meanwhile, construction began on what was initially planned as a guest house – but which never served as such – built by Ziller between 1872 and 1874. This building was later modified with the addition of another floor.”
“In the meantime, in 1880, young architect Savvas Boukis was sent to St Petersburg with orders to copy a mansion that was in the royal complex of Peterhof. The construction of the main residence, or palace, based on these designs, started in 1884 and was completed in 1886, though matters of interior decoration and landscaping delayed the royal family of Constantine I and Sophia from moving in until 1889.”
Stamatopoulos explains that Tatoi was used as a summer residence until 1948, usually from May until the autumn. It was a major political center not just because royals from other countries in Europe would often visit, but also because George I liked staying there alone to work without diversions.
“Only a few governments were sworn in at Tatoi as it was a private rather than formal space. But in 1915, when Constantine I was too ill to travel, Eleftherios Venizelos's government was sworn in at Tatoi. Also, the first contacts with Constantine Karamanlis were held there in October 1955, as well as the last meeting with the then prime minister, eight years later, when relations had completely soured.”
On December 13, 1967, King Constantine II failed in an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship and he and his family left the country. Until 1973, the former royal family continued to receive money from the state but the Tatoi estate was left in disrepair.
“So, we have the first period from 1967 to 1973 when the king was deposed by [dictator Giorgos] Papadopoulos, which led to the gradual demise of the estate: Money was coming in in dribs and drabs and those [staff] who retired were not replaced. The property began to age. In 1973, it was abandoned completely, quite suddenly, after the change in regime meant an end to the funding, including the part that went to the upkeep of Tatoi. That meant there wasn't even enough money to buy feed for the cows and horses, which died of starvation in the stables,” explains the historian.
In 1973, legislation was passed that allowed the state to take possession of the entirety of the ex-royal family's assets. The buildings on the Tatoi Estate came under the jurisdiction of the Economy Ministry and the land under that of Agriculture. In 1973, the authorities made a complete record of all the removable objects in the buildings, which though done in a somewhat slipshod manner is still the most comprehensive that exists of the estate's contents.
“In 1974, after the abolition of the monarchy by referendum, Tatoi was named by Constantine Karamanlis as the private property of the former royal family. Many of the heirlooms from other royal properties had been stored there for safekeeping, but the family was not granted the right to manage any of that property. One of the results of this move, for example, is that the old cowshed is now filled with objects from the Castle of Rododafni, the mansion at Psychico, Mon Repos on Corfu, and other residences. There has also been a lot vandalism and looting. There was not enough security and Tatoi gradually declined,” Stamatopoulos says.
Negotiations between the former royal family and the Greek state over Tatoi begin in 1984. In 1992, the government signed an agreement according to which the former royals would retain ownership of land of just under 4,000 hectares, paying the state 343 million drachmas. The family was also permitted to enter the palace and remove part of the “houseware.” The agreement provoked reactions and the removal of property from the estate was stopped, though not before nine cargo containers had left Greece packed with treasures.
In 1994, the law that granted the former royal family ownership of the land was abolished, prompting a court battle. In 2000, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the former royals, giving them ownership rights and allowing the Greek state to purchase the titles from the ex-royal family. The case was closed in 2002, when the Greek state paid 13.2 million euros to the family. Tatoi became the property of the Greek state on March 7, 2003.
People are shocked when they realize they have to climb through a hole in a chain-link fence to enter the Tatoi estate. Driving up, they think they'll see something like Versailles. But the first sight of the palace is nothing short of depressing, and you can't help but wonder why the estate was allowed to fall into such disrepair.
Vassilis Koutsavlis is the president of the Friends of Tatoi Society, a particularly active citizens' group formed in 2010, which together with Elliniki Etairia forms the driving force behind Tatoi's salvation.
“I want to mention the example of Auschwitz, a site where the most abhorrent war crimes were committed, which is open to visitors, where people can pay for a ticket and see it. Here we have unleashed all of our hate because Tatoi was a royal estate, either as citizens by looting and vandalizing or as a state by being indifferent to its fate,” says Koutsavlis.
The Friends of Tatoi Society has already financed two studies for the restoration of certain buildings (the dairies and telegraph office), and by the end of the year two more will be completed, while it is currently raising funds for a study for the restoration of the winery. Elliniki Etairia, with the help of Europa Nostra, already has a master plan for utilizing the estate.
In 2012, the Environment Ministry drew up its own plan for Tatoi. According to the heads of the research team, Antonis Krasas and Stavros Ganotis, the study describes how Tatoi could be transformed into a sustainable space for culture and leisure, with the revival of a number of its old activities (farming and wine production, for example) and the additions of new ones (a museum, restaurants etc).
Elliniki Etairia and the Friends of Tatoi Society agree with the basic points of the ministry's study but disagree with others. The phase of consultation between the different parties was completed several months ago but the ministerial decision that will determine what direction Tatoi will take has yet to be signed.
“The study is looking at mild interventions at a cost of up to 100 million euros. Currently, the area receives 150,000 visitors a year and this could be doubled instantly: The place would become sustainable even with a small entrance fee charged in the visitable areas,” says Alternate Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis. Stamatopoulos believes that the revamp of the area needs to focus on the elements that make Tatoi unique.
“I was recently in Istanbul as saw how the Yildiz Palace Gardens have been restored. Why can't we do something similar? Tatoi is an entire world that needs to be revived.”