ΒΑΣΙΛΗΣ ΓΟΥΛΑΝΔΡΗΣ Basil Goulandris 1913-1994
Section 4, Number 337
If you were to take a map of central Athens and blank out the sites financed by Greece’s mega-wealthy since 1830, you would see a very different city. Subtract the university on Panapistimiou with its adjacent National Library. Return the Kalimarmara stadium to a depression in a hill southeast of town, forget the National Archaeological Museum, the Arsakeion, the French Embassy on Ag. Sophia, the Zappeion, the Varvakian school, the Hill School, Syngrou Avenue, the old bridge over the Illisios river leading to the First Cemetery, several hospitals and so on and so forth. Even the imposing building housing the Greek parliament on Syntagma Square was financed by King Ludwig of Bavaria who, following a grand Greek tradition, built the house for his son, king Othon and his bride Amalia.
Leave aside the issue (pros or cons) of such wealth being concentrated among the very few and focus instead on the generosity. It was not necessarily because of proximity to Athens. While many of Greece’s greatest benefactors were residents, many others were sometime residents, and many were not residents at all. What bound them together was the desire to make a lasting contribution to Greece’s capital city and, by extension, to the nation.
The largesse of ‘Golden Greeks’ in Athens has continued. Witness the Benaki Museum founded in 1930, the Cycladic Museum opening in 1986, the Onassis Cultural Center inaugurated in 2004, and the Niarchos Center which burst onto the city scene in 2016.
And now, Athens has seen the opening of The Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art, a gift to Athens of art collectors Basil P. Goulandris and his wife Elise.
The new museum
It is a stunning collection housed in a building just a few steps from the Kalimarmara Stadium in Pangrati. Basil and Elise were not the first of the Goulandris clan to adorn the city.(1) But this 2019 opening offers the perfect opportunity to focus on Basil and Elise, perhaps the wealthiest Goulandris of them all.
The Beginnings on Andros: ‘The Island of Sailors’
Such wealth needs fertile ground to germinate. That proved to be the Cycladic island of Andros where, for generations, Andriot families, the Goulandris clan included, were involved in shipping of one sort or another.
Their ventures were based on a ‘family’ business model, one in which crews from captain on down tended to be members of the same extended family. Such endeavours required a lot of hands on deck and Andriot families were prolific enough to get the job done. For example, Leonardos Embiricos, one of the first from Andros to acquire real wealth, would parlay his 9 children (7 sons and two daughters) into 127 great grandchildren!
If you try to count the Goulandris clan, your head will spin(2)
Ioannis P Goulandris (1840-1927), the patriarch of the shipping business, was a captain and then an owner. His own business acumen plus a loan from an Embiricos allowed him to enter the Mediterranean and Black sea shipping market in the early 1900s. It was not always smooth sailing. World War One would intervene, the Depression and then World War Two, but the clan somehow weathered the storms.
Ioannis P had five sons. His eldest, Petros I, (1877-1931), took over the business in the next generation and he too had five sons (and a daughter who would marry an Embiricos). One of these was Basil P Goulandris, born on Andros in 1913. All Goulandris brothers would do well, but Basil was destined to be the leader and the most successful.
From Andros to the World Stage
Even before the First World War, well watered Andros was a charmed island with amenities like street lighting that other islands could only hope for. The neoclassical mansions of successful ship owners were tucked into the wooded hills outside of Hora, the island’s main town. It was here that Basil spent his early childhood until his family moved to Athens where he then benefitted from excellent schools. A bout of tuberculosis resulted in his being sent off to Switzerland to recuperate. He remained there and studied law during the 1930s and before joining his elder brother John in the family offices in London. By the end of the 1940s, he was firmly based in New York. Shipping had gone global and Greek ships were sailing under many flags. Tiny Andros would remain the family’s home base and favoured spot for gatherings and vacations.
1950 was a watershed year for Basil. First, he married Elise Karadontis a woman who was as vivacious as she was beautiful. Elise had been born in Athens in 1917 into a large family whose roots were Arcadian. She completed studies in Athens, and eventually embarked for the United States to continue her studies. It was there that she met and married Basil Goulandris. She was the love of his life and very much his equal when it came to their social life or art collection. It was a good life.
The Goulandris circle included celebrities, fellow ship owners and, of course, artists
The golden couple
Also in 1950, Basil’s older brother John died and he assumed the leadership of the family business at a time when the post World War Two economic boom and the needs of the Korean war made expansion possible.
The Huffington Post described his rise this way:
The renowned success of the Andriots lay in the balanced combination of measured risk taking and entrepreneurial spirit.... There was a shift to New York where high leverage finance was more readily available. They took advantage of this to acquire Liberty Ships and, most importantly, to enter the tanker market. They saw the advantage in the economies of large vessels as the world trade boomed. In addition, they were among the first to build tankers in Japan in 1954, which at the time was considered venturesome. Again they displayed their gambling temperament and determination. (2)
Basil was both astute, and well versed in the needs of the shipping industry:
The fleet always balanced between large tankers and bulk carriers that were large for their time. Under Basil’s leadership there were always a number of tankers held on long term time charter to the major oil companies. This proved to be a wise approach because it ensured steady income during the frequent lean years when funding was most needed.(3)
His personal integrity and decisiveness were legendary as was his continuing concern for the welfare of those working with and for him.
This combination of astuteness, decisiveness, and good timing made the Goulandris family very rich indeed. By 1970 the Goulandris were the largest Greek ship owners in the world.
During his career, he would become the honorary President of the Greek Union of Ship Owners as well as being on the executive board of The American Bureau of Shipping. The couple may have been childless but a myriad of nieces and nephews from both sides of their families were on tap to keep the business going into the fourth generation.
By the late 70s Basil and Elise had time to consider their legacy. They inaugurated The Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in 1979. Andros was the first beneficiary. Besides having already funded the Andros Maritime Museum, they presented three more museums to Andros: the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979, the Archaeological Museum of Andros in 1981 and a new wing of their Modern Art Museum in 1986 to house international exhibitions of prominent foreign artists such as Picasso, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Balthus, and home grown talent such as Kyriakos-Ghikas, Moralis, Parthenis, and Tetsis.
The Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros
Andros benefitted in other ways as well. Because of the influence of the Goulandris and other shipping families, Andros did not develop mass tourism with huge hotels like some other Greek islands. For that reason, the island and Hora in particular has remained a charming spot to visit.
Art collecting was their life-long passion. Friends would describe it as a part of their DNA. The final result was a collection as extensive as it was priceless, not just because of the estimated three billion plus that the works are estimated to be worth, but because the collection itself was a unique blend of their good taste and acumen. Nor did they hide it all away in vaults. With seven homes and a 25 million dollar yacht, the Paloma, there was no shortage of wall space. Much of their collection was on display in their residences. Many artists whose work they collected became their friends.
A Goulandris salon
Athens and a Mystery at the Museum
Their great wish, as time passed, was to donate and display their collection in an Athenian venue. Initially the plan met with many problems. One was the venue. One chosen site hard by the Byzantine and Christian Museum turned out to be the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum. There were other land glitches until the site in Pangrati was finally decided upon.
Then there were legal problems over the collection itself. Basil died in 1994 leaving no will and Elise in 2000 left a will that would cause years of dispute. After her death a niece from her side of the family, Aspasia Zaimis, claimed that one sixth of the collection belonged to her. The dispute was between her, the rest of the family, and the Foundation’s director Kyriakos Koutsomallis who had also been the executor of Elise’s will.
This became a complicated legal battle with high financial stakes and many players. In a collection where one Van Gogh was estimated to be worth 120 million dollars, feelings and interests ran high. The situation was made all the more complicated by the fact that 83 of the paintings had apparently been ‘sold’ to a Panama registered company in 1985 but had never actually left the possession of Basil and Elise. Was it an effort to keep the paintings in the Foundation’s hands?’ The ins and outs of this complicated affair have been shrouded in mystery in a way that only the very rich can shroud their mysteries!
Luckily for us, the upshot has been a solution that has allowed the Museum in Athens to go ahead under the aegis of Mr Koutsomallis and one of Elise’s nieces, Flereutte Karadonti.
The Newest Jewel in Athens’ Cultural Crown
This museum is a true feast for the eyes – from the single Goya (hardly modern but the first painting collected by the couple) to Picassos, Renoirs, Braques, Chagalls, and Van Goghs, just to name a few. There is sculpture as well!
A Portrait of Elise by her friend Chagall
Yet another Picasso!
The upper floors are devoted to Greek artists with works by Morales, Kyriakos Ghikas, and many others.
There is a beautifully enigmatic picture of George Seferis by Makris:
Kudos for Basil and Elise: Basil and Elise have been awarded many honours by the French and Greek governments and their cultural institutions. But their greatest award is surely the gratitude of the people of Greece for this priceless addition to the cultural richness of Athens.
Section 4, Number 337
It is also a Karadontis family grave.
There is an attractive stained glass window at the back and anchors at the front, a common choice of shipping families in the cemetery:
(1) 1964 saw the inauguration of the Natural History Museum in Kifissia, a gift of Angelos and Nikki Goulandris, a branch of the same Andriote family. This was followed by the gift of Dolly and Nikos Goulandris (Basil’s brother) of the Cycladic Museum in 1986.
Have a look at Βασίλης Π. Γουλανδρής https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd87mzrTLRQ (a 14 minute mini documentary (with English subtitles)narrated by Kyriakos Koutsomallis, the museum’s director.