The tragic rise and fall of Greece’s greatest art collector

Alexandre Iolas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The story of Alexandros Iolas rightly reads like a Greek tragedy. A man who once sat on top of the world, in his case the world of fine art, he had a tragic demise, abetted by human pettiness and politics.

As an art collector, dealer, and gallery owner, Iolas helped establish Surrealism in the United States and, to some extent, the acceptance of Pop Art as a whole.

His star was the brightest of any Greek in the art world, but it was his fellow Greeks who turned against him in the years before his death.

Born Constantin Koutsoudis into a wealthy family in Alexandria, Egypt, on March 25, 1907, he studied dance in Berlin and then in Paris, where he settled in 1933 when the rise of Nazism forced him to leave Germany.

Alexandros Iolas modeled and mingled with some of the most influential artists of the 20th century

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Georges Braque. “The olive tree near L’Estaque”, 1906. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

He came into contact with many plastic artists in the French capital, posing as a model for the painter Giorgio de Chirico and the photographer Herbert List.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

In the mid-1930s, Koutsoudis moved to New York, where he became a dancer with the George de Cuevas company. In New York he met Theodora Roosevelt, a granddaughter of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, who was also a dancer.

They had a brief affair, during which the young woman urged him to change his name to Alexandros Iolas due to his birthplace.

Known now as Iolas, the Greek man was forced to give up dancing after an accident in 1944, subsequently devoting himself entirely to collecting works of art.

The Greek immigrant soon began to socialize with figures such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, Georges Braque, Man Ray, René Magritte and Max Ernst. His beauty and vibrant personality made him very popular in artistic circles.

Iolas has directed international art galleries and represented Magritte, Warhol

Iolas then became the director of the Hugo Gallery, founded in 1944 by Robert Rothschild, Elizabeth Arden and Maria dei Principi Ruspoli Hugo, where Andy Warhol had his first solo exhibition in 1952.

He founded the Jackson-Iolas Gallery in 1955 with former dancer Brooks Jackson, then opened and operated a chain of art galleries under his own name in New York, Paris, Milan, Rome, Geneva, Madrid and Athens.

In its galleries, Iolas has represented important artists, such as Andy Warhol, René Magritte, Roberto Matta, Ed Ruscha, Yves Klein, Jannis Kounellis, Takis, Victor Brauner and Niki de Saint-Phalle.

His flamboyant personality made him very likeable among art buyers and he became a prominent member of the art world as well as the international jet set.

At the same time, Iolas also promoted important Greek artists abroad, including Costas Tsoklis, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, Yannis Tsarouchis, Giorgios Gounaropoulos, Takis and others, some of them becoming well established abroad. ‘foreigner.

The famous villa Iolas in Agia Paraskevi

In the 1960s, he began to return often to Greece, while planning to create a museum of modern Greek art there. It was then that the jet-set art dealer began building his famous villa in the Athens suburb of Agia Paraskevi.

It turned out to be an 18,300 square foot palace in which he planned to house his priceless collection of art and antiquities.

His dream of creating a museum of contemporary Greek art never materialized; however, Iolas sparked the founding of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, to which he donated a large number of works of art from his collection.

When the collector finally finished his mansion in Agia Paraskevi, he brought and installed his huge collection of antiquities, as well as Byzantine and modern art. Its vast collections also included tapestries, furniture and other objects of great artistic and monetary value.
Marble walls, golden doors, ancient columns from Ravenna and up to 10,000 works of art and antiquities of almost incalculable value decorated the villa of Iolas.

Iolas clearly never wanted the villa to be just his home, but a museum that would house his works and people from the art world.

This is why there were rooms in the villa dedicated to particular themes, such as the “Byzantine Culture Room”, “Andy Warhol’s Room”, and others.

“A room in the palace of Iolas houses more masterpieces than the National Gallery of Athens,” wrote a journalist from the French newspaper. Release after his visit to the mansion of Agia Paraskevi.

Iolas’ valuable art collection included works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, Max Ernst and others, as well as notable works by Greek artists.

The villa in which all these treasures were housed was more like a palace. Designed by famous architects and decorated by artists, it became the place where famous dinners and parties took place, with guests always prominent members of the art world, the international jet set, politicians, writers and fashion designers.

The tragic fall of the famous Greek art collector

The parties hosted by Iolas at his domain quickly became legendary. At the same time, however, they were targeted by the yellow press, especially the tabloid Avriani.

The daily launches a ruthless attack against Iolas, criticizing his sexuality – he is openly homosexual – and his many excesses.

It all started in 1983, after the art collector gave an interview to Women magazine in which he denigrates his friends, from Yannis Tsarouchis to Melina Merkouri, as well as personalities from all over the political sphere and the art world in Greece.

Power has never forgiven him for this indiscretion. Especially the press.

By then, PASOK had been in power in Greece for two years and the nation had changed, with the socialist rhetoric of Andreas Papandreou prevailing. Avrianithe tabloid that backed PASOK and its leader found a convenient scapegoat in Iolas.

Iolas targeted for his sexuality

He was rich, eccentric and homosexual, things that didn’t sit well with the new socialist Greece the paper was propagating. And the fact that he was friends with former Prime Minister Constantin Karamanlis didn’t help either.

Slanderous reports of Iolas in Avriani portrays him as an antiquities dealer, a drug addict and even a pedophile. Soon, many Greeks chose to see the eccentric art collector in a different light than they had before, and he eventually became persona non grata in society.

Iolas could not fight back and, as his biographer Nikos Stathoulis wrote, the unjust war against him contributed to his demise.

He died of AIDS on June 8, 1987, a virus that tragically took away some of the world’s most important thinkers, artists and creatives before their time.

After his death, his sister Niki Stifel and his deceased brother’s daughter, Eleni Koutsoudi-Iola, became heirs to his estate.

Alexandros Iolas wanted the estate to become a museum, but it fell into disrepair

The women attempted to sell the entire Alexandros Iolas estate to a developer, but the Ministry of Culture halted their plan, as the villa was marked as a Greek cultural heritage site.

But ironically, even after this statement, Iolas’ wish to turn its collection into a museum has still not been realized by the Greek government. As a result, the priceless collection was looted piece by piece and the villa was the sad victim of vandals over the years.

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Villa Iolas as it is today, emptied of its treasures, looted and vandalized. Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

However, the famous villa was recently acquired by the Municipality of Agia Paraskevi, which plans to restore it and house modern Greek art there again, in cooperation with the Development Framework Partnership Agreement (ESPA).

Watch the documentary below to see the mansion in all its glory and how it appears today.

Norma D. Ross