The rare collection of toys by Maria Argyriadi, donated to the Benaki Museum, is among the largest in Europe; a journey back in time through unique vintage toys that bring whole eras to life.
By Alexandros Theodoropoulos
Maria Argyriadi was born in Athens in 1946 and studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts of the NTUA. When people looked at her they thought she was just a lonely woman with no special life and interests. They believed that the toys she collected with rage were the result of obsession.
But at the moment that someone would decide to show a little interest in a seemingly meaningless collection of toys, they automatically got into the spirit of other times and habits. They met with history itself.
The path to the collection
One Christmas, she remembered that her mother didn’t have the money to buy her toys, so she rejuvenated the existing ones by dressing them in new clothes and bows before putting them next to the Christmas tree. Maria saw them the next morning as new.
The moral of this story, as she said years later, is that you never throw a toy away. You never forget it, but you always love it. Because along with it comes a whole era with its values and ideals.
The reason for the beginning of an unexpected collection was a torn teddy bear that she once found on the street. She fixed it and kept it because it reminded her own teddy bear that she had as a child. From that moment in the distant 1970 onwards she never stopped. Researching and studying toys, along with all the unique meanings they hide behind them and the different eras they bring with them, has become a daily habit in the life of the famous collector.
Maria Argyriadi's collection reached the number of about 20,000 toys and today is considered among the ten best in Europe.
The donation to the Benaki Museum and the unique toys
In 1991, the diachronic director of the Benaki Museum, Angelos Delivorias, encouraged Maria Argyriadi to get involved in the museum and leave her great legacy there. Therefore, the manic collector donated much of her collection to the museum and worked for decades to make her dream come true.
In October 2017, the toy museum was inaugurated with Maria Argyriadi in charge. The museum which is a donation of the Kouloura family at the Benaki Museum is housed in the Kouloura House in Palaio Faliro. So far the museum houses about 3000 toys, several of the collection of Maria Argyriadi.
Among many historical toys, one can see the pony given by Eleftherios Venizelos to his grandson Lefterakis, the theatrical puppet that welcomes you in - a work of set designer Dionysis Fotopoulos, an airplane in the standards of WWI that a father gave to his son, even the luxurious dollhouse along with the toys of Queen Olga.
Toys made by members of KAPI, who created them with the memories they had from their childhood, are also featured, causing great emotion.
"When they give us a toy, we ask about the emotion, the story. There are such stories of donors and we have many stories that are worthwhile.
There is, for example, a children's living room which a lady brought us, whose mum had made for her during the Nazi Occupation. We are particularly concerned with that era because it is very moving, how the children played, how they made toys out of nothing. Her mother took wood from a Germans’ wood stove, made the tiny furniture, painted it and decorated it with nail polish", Maria Argyriadi once said and continued:
Everything talks about its time, the Greek or European societies, the customs, the aesthetics, the economic prosperity or misery. After all, the museum's intention is not to compare times, not to say 'back then it was better'. Each era has its own stuff. Through every toy we see how people used to live at the time it was created."
For the acquisition of the toys that led to her huge global collection, Maria Argyriadi searched mainly through auctions of famous houses, always in contact with the archeological company. As she had admitted, the fact that her husband was an antique dealer always helped the process.
Maria Argyriadi passed away at the age of 72 in 2018 and the Benaki Museum said goodbye to her properly.
But her collection will stay alive forever, reminding us that all people, even the oldest, once were children…