Alexandre Iolas' dream come true?
by Christy Papadopoulou

Chaos reigns following Iolas' death in 1987

ALEXANDRIA-BORN art collector and dealer Alexandre Iolas had a vision - to
turn his villa at the northern suburb of Agia Paraskevi into a museum of
contemporary art - his legacy to young artists. Twenty-five years after Iolas'
passing away from AIDS, what used to be his palace bears testimony to
negligence, abandonment, plundering and vandalism. Still it retains the
decadent glory of a Mecca of art, visited in its prime by arts "ambassadors"
Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Rudolf Nureyef, but also political figures such
as the Kennedys and Constantine Karamanlis.

In marble (and, in bygone days, sculpted gold), Iolas' mansion has repeatedly
preoccupied the media over the past decade; but sadly, the scandals over its
owner's involvement with drugs, prostitution and antiquities smuggling have
been calling all the attention. This time round, and following successive
pleas by the Agia Paraskevi Municipality, the culture ministry promises to
expropriate and restore the historical building for use during the Cultural

"Five years ago, the Municipal Council prevented the villa and the surrounding
gardens - an area of 6,500m2 - from being turned into luxurious flats, by
refusing construction permits to Iolas' heirs," Yiorgos Herouvis, director of
the municipality's press office told the Athens News.

In 1998, the impressive mansion - an original combination of residence and
private museum - was officially proclaimed a "listed building" by the culture
ministry's Central Council of Modern Monuments, and as such it was safeguarded
by building activity of any kind.

The decision was taken on the basis that the building is connected with a
leading 20th-century figure who zealously promoted modern art internationally.

A temple of art, Iola's villa housed masterpieces by distinguished artists,
including Picasso, Dali, Magritte, the "Pope" of pop art Andy Warhol, Fontana,
Matta, and local talents Pavlos, Akrithakis, Takis and Tsoclis, among others.

What's more, this glorious homegrown gallery was also adorned with antique
statuary - two 12th-century Romanesque stone-pillars from Italy on the porch
and Roman torsos in the garden, elegantly placed in an open-air colonnade of
ancient stone fragments.

Now sealed: The villa's entrance gate

Though the torsos have now been removed, the colonnade remains in place. The
residence's marble-paved terrace and an all-marble library have survived the
overall decay. French sculptor Claude Lalanne's iron balustrade with entwined
leaves and flowers has been pulled out. The Egyptian Fayums, Byzantine icons
and Versailles furniture have all been dispersed, along with the entire modern
art collection, hastily and mysteriously transferred abroad by Iolas' sisters
following his death. Shattered glass, dusty art catalogues, chunks of marble
left lying around, Iolas' clothes scattered all over the floor and graffiti on
the walls, are what is left.

An agreement has been reached on October 18, 2002, between Agia Paraskevi
mayor Vassilis Yiannakopoulos and Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos
regarding the expropriation and restoration costs estimated at 6.46 million
euros, which will be covered in their entirety by the culture ministry. The
project has been stamped "urgent", and formal proceedings are being

"Once the property is bought off Iolas' heirs, the plan is for the villa to be
used as a multi-cultural centre - a cultural events space serving the purposes
of the Cultural Olympiad. Once the Olympics are over it will be allotted to
the Agia Paraskevi Municipality and will operate as a contemporary art
museum," Herouvis offered.

"We have nothing to do with Iola's villa," Dina Vassilakou, head of the
Cultural Olympiad's press office told the Athens News, leaving one to
wonder whether the lack of co-ordination is more than an issue of bureaucracy.

The problem of timing is also at issue, as the Olympiad events that began in
2001 will be reaching their peak in less than two years' time. This seems a
questionable timescale for both the legal proceedings and the restoration work
to begin. When the question of what will fill the new museum of contemporary
art once the Olympics are over, given that Iolas' prestigious modern art
collection is no longer available, was put to Feidakis, he gave no definite
answer. Hidden from indiscreet eyes by rich vegetation gone wild over the
years, Iolas' villa on Dimokratias St is attributed by the Agia Paraskevi
Municipality - at least in its initial stages - to Chiot architect Dimitris
Pikionis, who employed the help of artist Yannis Tsarouchis. In Iolas'
biography by journalist Nikos Stathoulis, a chapter entitled Pikionis Talking
to the Stones (Alexandros Iolas, Nea Synora - Livanis, 1994),
bears witness to the importance of the architect.

Greek Style, a book on decoration (Thames and Hudson, 1990) also
puts forward the architect Pikionis as the mastermind behind Iolas' house. But
in an interview with Kathimerini daily, the architect's daughter Agni
claimed that her father had nothing to do with the mansion's construction. And
in a letter addressed to the culture ministry, architect Alektoridou suggests
the involvement of Kalatzopoulos, a student of both Pikionis and artist Nikos

Born in Alexandria in 1908, the son of wealthy traders, Iolas
moved to Athens at the age of 17, with three letters of reference from
Constantine Cavafy. In Athens, Alexandre Iolas, or Konstantinos Koutsoudis as
he was then known, became acquainted with Angelos Sikelianos, Costis Palamas,
and Dimitris Mitropoulos, under whose encouragement he left for Berlin to
study classical dance. In the mid-40s, following a knee injury, Iolas - who
was already an established dancer at New York's Metropolitan Theatre - gave up
dancing, and dedicated himself to his other passion: art. Owning galleries in
New York, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Rome and Geneva, he built an influential
reputation in the art market for promoting young talent and moulding artistic
trends. In 1985 he donated some 50 art pieces from his collection to the
Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. Iolas shared his life
between Paris, Berlin, New York and Greece. He died in New York in 1987.

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