Antonis Benakis, scion of one of the leading families of the Greek diaspora, was born in Alexandria in 1873. He was witness to the vibrant tradition of national benefaction which, from the earliest years of Greek independence, was so clearly manifest amongst the Greek communities abroad.
Antonis Benakis in front of a showcase with an ancient vase. 1940-1950. © Benaki Museum, Historical Archives
Benakis began his career as a collector in Alexandria, gradually reaching the decision to donate his collections to the Greek state, an idea which became reality after he settled permanently in Athens in 1926.
The world in which Antonis Benakis moved was shaped in a period when the drive to extend the boundaries of the Greek state was as much an element of contemporary society as the parallel ideologies of urban development and enlightenment through education. Benakis' proverbial generosity towards other cultural institutions and undertakings was indicative of this.
His personality was formed within a family environment which nourished such ideals, and which also fostered the exceptional literary talents of his sister, Penelope Delta (1874-1941), whose stories have been familiar to generations of Greek children.
It is certain that Antonis Benakis, the founder of the Benaki Museum, was also influenced by the example of his father Emmanuel Benakis (1843-1929). A close friend and colleague of the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), Emmanuel Benakis placed his fortune at the disposal of numerous charitable foundations and likewise contributed to the settlement of refugees in the aftermath of the catastrophe in Asia Minor.
Within this context, the nature of Antonis Benakis’s benefaction becomes self-evident. Its most salient feature remains the fact that during his own lifetime Benakis donated the museum he created to the Greek state. Of equal importance was his continuous involvement, until his death in 1954, in enriching and improving the organisation of the museum’s holdings, and his role in ensuring its financial security.