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News Item: 00084
13th Sep 2009
The dealer, the $10m and the missing art treasures
An article by Mark Townsend published in the The Observer reports family of trader's late partner allege new twist in decade-long fight for control of collection.

For 30 years, Robin Symes and Christo Michailidis were inseparable as the glamour couple of the global antiques trade. Procuring ancient artefacts for the rich and famous, they built one of the world's largest art businesses.

Yet since the death of Michailidis a decade ago, Symes and the Greek family of his late partner have been embroiled in an increasingly rancorous legal battle over ownership of the men's collection of ancient treasures.

Now, in the latest twist, Symes, described as Britain's most successful antiquities dealer, is being investigated over a missing collection of multimillion pound art deco masterpieces created by one of Europe's most influential designers.

A rare collection of Eileen Gray furniture that the family of Michailidis say belongs to them is missing amid evidence that allegedly indicates that Symes discreetly sold off the collection, "spiriting away the money" before a court order was granted to freeze his assets.

Symes, 69, has already served a jail sentence, in 2005, for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3m Egyptian statue. The judge in the case described Symes's explanation as "a calculated deception".

Private investigators hired to accrue evidence against Symes now claim to have exposed a fresh trail of duplicity, double-dealing and evidence of money laundering involving the Gray artefacts, a well-known French bank and the transfer of suspicious payments to accounts in London, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar. During the course of their inquiry, detectives examined allegations involving a mystery blaze on a luxury Greek yacht and a fictitious millionairess from the Middle East.

Before the tragic death of 56-year-old Michailidis, who fell down a staircase in an Italian villa, Symes and his Greek partner lived together in a £6m Chelsea property with an entire room dedicated to the display of the Gray furniture.

The display, valued at around £18m and bought by the Michailidis family, constituted one of the world's most impressive Gray collections - the late Irish designer is credited with inspiring both Modernism and art deco.

Following the death in 1999 of Michailidis, the heir to a Greek shipping fortune, an acrimonious legal battle has evolved between Symes and the family of his late partner over what happened to the work of an artist regarded as one of the most influential furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century.

Investigators for the Michailidis family have now allegedly accumulated evidence that Symes managed to surreptitiously sell the Gray masterpieces through a Parisian art dealer.

London law firm Bird & Bird, which represents the Michailidis family, has obtained details of Symes's bank accounts that it claims reveal a money trail emanating from the secret sale of the Gray collection. They allegedly indicate that Symes received a $10.3m payment for the collection which, it is claimed, he then tried to hide using a sophisticated pan-European laundering scam.

According to the court documents, a major French bank laundered the $10.3m through a Liechtenstein-based "front" company called Lombardi, whose sole beneficiary was Symes. The money was then deposited to an account in Gibraltar and forwarded to Symes in London. Neither the court nor the Michailidis family was informed of the payment to the antiques dealer.

A court document, dated 9 April 2009, from solicitors representing the Michailidis family accuses Symes of attempting to hide the money trail in a case that throws fresh light on the murky world of antiquities smuggling.

Now Bird & Bird is launching a legal action against the French bank and its branch in Gibraltar for allegedly helping to launder the proceeds following the shadowy sale of the Gray collection. Symes was bankrupted by his own lawyers, Lovells, five years ago for failure to pay bills of more than £5m.

Before the documents exposing the alleged laundering scandal came to light, Symes had attempted to explain the appearance of $10.3m in his account by explaining that a woman from the Middle East, known to investigators as the "shady lady", had given him the cash in a lavish act of generosity. Symes presented an elaborate story claiming she had given him jewellery worth around $10m that she initially wanted Symes to sell, but had then decided to let him retain the profits. All she demanded in return for such an altruistic gesture, according to Symes, was strict anonymity.

Under pressure from Michailidis's lawyers, though, Symes eventually agreed to volunteer her Arabic name which they later translated as meaning "total rubbish", in English. A legal source claimed: "She was a totally fictitious character, a construct to explain the appearance of the Eileen Gray money."

Where, though, the Gray collection can be found today, private investigators for the Michailidis family are unsure. The most persistent rumours indicate that it was sold from Paris to the Middle East and may now be found in the private collection of a Qatar-based sheikh. In total, dozens of detectives have been reportedly hired over the past decade by the Michailidis clan to follow Symes around the world. So far, they have unearthed 29 locations belonging to Symes containing thousands of antiquities. Symes yesterday refused to comment on the latest allegations involving the Gray collection.

Although friends describe him as a charming, harmless man, allegations of unscrupulous behaviour surrounding the dealer have frequently surfaced in the past. An antiques administrator for Sotheby's was reportedly told in 1989 that he would allegedly be "sorted out" if he asked too many questions.

One peculiar incident that lawyers speculate might be connected to the ongoing legal dispute involves the 100ft super luxury yacht belonging to Michailidis which caught fire while in dry dock in the port of Piraeus, Athens, in 2007.

Inquiries by the Lloyd's shipping register and the port insurers yielded no explanation for the sudden fire, a verdict which fuelled theories of foul play. No evidence exists linking Symes to the mystery.
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