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High life

Unlike the philistine sharks of today, Aleko Goulandris is an art collector of the old school

I sat next to his Giacometti’s ‘Chariot’ every 5 March for 40 years

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Aleko Goulandris is my oldest and closest friend. We met in the summer of 1945, at the Semiramis hotel in a northern Athenian resort. The Allied bombing and the ensuing communist uprising of 1944 had not been kind to ritzy houses, nor to glitzy hotels. The Semiramis was the only one still operating during the hot months of July and August. Aleko and his twin brother Leonidas befriended me, aged nine, and, as they say, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

The boys were shipping heirs and had become heroes of sorts because during the previous winter, when the battle for Athens was raging, they had answered the call to hold the line against the reds who had come down from the mountains and tried to take over through force of arms. The Goulandris clan is a very large one, and most of them did their duty during the war. My father was down near the Acropolis where the battle raged for days, and that is where Aleko and Leonidas went and presented themselves. A grizzly veteran told the 16-year-old twins to dig a trench, get inside it, and shoot at anyone who tried to cross after dark. The twins had a distinctive way of speaking, so when they saw a figure coming they yelled out ‘Ti Si’, which in Greek military lingo means ‘Who goes there?’ ‘What are you, Egyptians?’ came the answer from a regular army captain who had been out reconnoitering. The boys took it badly. It got worse the next night when their mother arrived with cakes and other goodies, and they endured the barbs of weary veterans who had been fighting for weeks on bread and water alone.


The next time I hooked up with them, I was 15 and we were all in Cannes for the summer of 1952. Aleko had a beautiful red sports car, an Allard, and a beautiful American girlfriend. With Nicky lying on the hood, Aleko won first prize for elegance in Europe’s most prestigious automobile show. His twin had a glamorous Hollywood actress, his older brother a beautiful sailing boat, and his sister had bought Eros, a great black schooner that is still sailing the seven seas. I only had a Vespa scooter, but the boys got me into all the nightclubs of the time — Maxim’s, in Juan-les-Pins, and Le Vieux Colombier, where Sidney Bechet played his lungs out every night. It was a magical summer and it was a nightmare having to go back to school. Covered with crabs, as it were.

Last week Aleko became $101 million richer when he sold ‘Chariot’, a Giacometti bronze of an elongated female and one of the rarest of sculptures. The Sotheby’s salesroom burst into applause, and as I speak to Aleko every day when I’m in Europe — at 10 a.m. exactly — I made sure I got up early and rang him. He had bought the work in 1972 and it was very expensive for the time. ‘You could buy a 5th Avenue penthouse for much less,’ was the way he put it. But unlike the philistine sharks that trade in art nowadays, Aleko has always bought art for art’s sake. He once sat in my house and spent ten minutes looking at a Nicolas de Staël of mine, a work he helped me buy in Paris through his connection with the artist’s daughter. His own collection is one of the best, and he’s been collecting since he was a young man. His brother and cousin taught me a lot about music and art, and he recently had the great Zubin Mehta conduct Mahler and Bruckner at a concert in Athens. The conductor’s wife, whom I knew as Nancy Kovack, a serious young actress, asked Aleko if he knew Leonidas Goulandris and Taki. ‘One is my twin brother, the other my best friend,’ answered Mr G. Then he teased Nancy by asking her if she had gone out with us. ‘No,’ came the answer. ‘Leonidas was into Buddhism and Taki was much too wild for my taste.’

Now that the years are passing as quickly as they do, I think a lot about old friendships and stuff like that. Aleko has had great tragedy in his life, losing a daughter to a brain aneurysm and a grandson, but he and his wife Marietta have never complained, ever, as far as I know. He is no longer very mobile but we have regular lunches in Gstaad and in Greece where we drink and reminisce about old beauties and the fun we had behaving badly. His boat is anchored off his private port in the Peloponnese. He sees me sailing in from afar and gets on the telephone and we tell jokes about other good friends. He possesses an eidetic memory and describes old Athens with passion and elegance. There are Pinteresque silences only when he is asked direct questions about his person, which is the way it should be.

The Giacometti work was sold to Wall Street hedgie Steve Cohen. I sat next to ‘Chariot’ for 40 years, every 5 March, which is Aleko’s birthday. It is a very good day, 5 March is: Aleko was born and Stalin died.


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