‘Villa Iolas’ and its melancholy history

On a quiet suburban street in Aghia Paraskevi, northeastern Athens, where new apartment blocks alternate with a few older, well-cared-for private homes and gardens, the former residence of the late Alexandros Iolas stands out like a sore thumb. One has to try and imagine what the area was like in the 1960s, when Iolas decided to abandon the glittering world of cocktail parties and opening nights, trips to London and Paris. Back then Aghia Paraskevi was almost countryside, traces of which are even today still evident in a few scattered outreaches. It was Dimitris Pikionis, Greece’s most well-known architect at the time, who designed the 1,250-square-meter country home-museum on a 7,000-square-meter property, thickly planted with vegetation. Artist Yiannis Tsarouchis also played a considerable part in the final design. Iolas, whose tastes tended toward the grandiose, created a luxurious home in the fullest sense of the word. Once, on a visit to the abandoned house, we were surprised to see hidden under a pile of dust and timber beams a superb marble table, the sole object left behind by looters (probably because it was too heavy to shift) after Iolas’s death in 1987. Everything else, including works of art by Picasso, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Cirico and Andy Warhol, had disappeared from what had become famous in Athens as the «Villa Iolas.» Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the collector’s death. The only things that have changed in that quiet street in the Kontopefko district of Aghia Paraskevi are that the house itself is disintegrating and the neighborhood has become a city suburb. The only thing that betrays its origins as a country house is the large garden surrounding it. Yet even that is not certain. In 1998, the Iolas house was listed as an historic monument by the Culture Ministry, and perhaps more importantly, two years later as a Cultural Activities Center by the Environment and Public Works Ministry. The latter action guaranteed that the building would be used in accordance with the expressed will of the Municipality of Aghia Paraskevi that led the movement to have the zoning plan amended. The final plan provided for the house to be the site of the municipal cultural organization. This was when Athens was being readied to host the 2004 Olympics and every project, large or small, had been included in the pre-Olympic budgets. So in 2002, a joint ministerial decision (Economy and Finance, Environment and Public Works, Culture) ordered the expropriation of the property for the needs of the Cultural Olympiad. A court set the compensation price at 17 million euros, but the final compromise reached with the property’s apparent owner, Spyros Georgiou, dropped to 9 million euros. It appeared that the situation was in hand, and with some reason. Two installments of the compensation payment were entered into the state budgets of 2003 and 2004 (2.5 and 6.5 million respectively). However, not a single euro was ever paid out and the expropriation process was forgotten. After a new government was elected in 2004, the deputy culture minister at the time, Petros Tatoulis, decided to take up the issue, from a completely different angle: The Culture Ministry would buy the property itself. According to the law, the previous evaluation was no longer valid. The new compensation amount was even lower, at 5 million euros. The owner, naturally, did not accept and Tatoulis returned with a new proposal: an exchange of properties via the State Property Assets Company (KED). However Georgiou was unimpressed and negotiations once more reached a stalemate. Even after questions were raised in Parliament by a group of deputies including Maria Damanaki and Stavros Benos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of the Left Coalition, Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis did not commit himself, but claimed that the government had done everything it could. Michalis Gavras, head of the local Environmental and Cultural Association, is concerned at what he says is the Culture Ministry’s «unwillingness» to take any new action. At the moment the only possible solution appears to be a new set of negotiations with Georgiou, who is certain to try and extricate himself as soon as possible from the current stagnant situation. A contractor by profession, Georgiou has allegedly submitted an application to the Environment and Public Works Ministry’s zoning department (Department III) to have the property declassified. The issue has turned into an endurance race, that is, over who will tire first and give in. The way things are at the moment, this looks likely to be the Culture Ministry, although such an outcome is in neither side’s interest. Although the focus of attention is on Iolas’s house, the greatest issue for local residents is not the house itself but the property it stands on. Looking from above, one can see why. According to a local resident, there is a gardener who does what he can to care for the trees and shrubs, although the house itself has been left to its fate. So if the house itself is saved, 7,000 meters of greenery will also be saved, a small remnant of what Aghia Paraskevi once was. From Alexandria to the world, from dance to art collecting Alexandros Iolas was born into a wealthy family in 1908 in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was to meet Constantine Cavafy and the Cypriot writer and artist Nikos Nikolaidis. In the 1930s he came to study dance in Athens and then moved to Berlin. He became premier danseur in Salzburg and then went to New York, where he danced at the Metropolitan Opera. It was in the USA that he began his art collection and became friends with Giorgio de Chirico and other major surrealists Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. He introduced previously unknown artists such as Otto Vols and Jean Fortrier to the public. After a serious accident forced him to give up his dancing career, he devoted himself fully to collecting art. He opened his first gallery in New York and then in other major cities around the world. During the 1970s he was considered one of the most important gallery owners in the world. Over time, he accumulated a huge collection of works of ancient sculpture and modern art. He was one of the 10 co-founders of the Georges Pompidou Modern Art Center in Paris and the National Gallery in Athens. In 1965, he decided to move to Aghia Paraskevi, where he built his home to the specifications of a museum. During the early 1980s he donated works from his collection to the Macedonian Museum of Modern Art, including paintings by Andy Warhol, Lucio Fontana, Eizeo Mattiaci, Alexis Akrithakis and Taki, among others. His unquestioned ability to handle the international art market with such ease led him to acquire an excellent collection. It contrasts starkly with the Greek state’s inability to make the best use of people like Iolas. The result was inevitable; most of the works in this collection are now outside Greece.