Illicit Antiquities
Research Centre

against the theft & traffic
of archaeology

The fall of Robin Symes

Peter Watson

McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
Downing Street

Culture Without Context

Issue 15,
Autumn 2004

Mr Robin Symes, London’s best-known and most successful dealer in antiquities, was sent to prison for two years at the High Court in the Strand on 21 January 2005. He was jailed on two counts, one for 15 months, the other for 9 months. Both were for contempt of court. A third charge, for yet another contempt, still hangs over Mr Symes. He was given a one-year prison sentence, suspended, in the summer of 2004 and the judge, Mr Justice Peter Smith, refused to lift the suspension. This means that, unless Mr Symes complies with certain undertakings he has given to the court, while he is in prison, he could serve a further year after his current sentences expire.

The prison sentences were the culmination of a set of circumstances that began in Italy in the summer of 1999. At a dinner, at a rented villa in Umbria, hosted by (the late) Mr Leon Levy, a noted American collector of antiquities, and his wife Shelby White, Mr Symes’s partner, Mr Christo Michaelides, fell down some steps, hit his head on a radiator, and died in hospital the next day.

Initially, during the period of intense grief that followed the tragedy, there was no dispute between Mr Symes and Mr Michaelides’s Greek family. Mr Symes and Mr Michaelides had lived together since the early 1970s. They had a house in London, flats in New York and Athens, and shared a property on the Greek island of Schinoussa. About a year after the accident, however, the Greek family of Mr Michaelides asked for his affairs to be settled. They took the view that Mr Symes and Mr Michaelides were business partners, that they (the latter’s Greek family) had inherited his share of the business, and they wanted to sell their 50 per cent. They were shipowners, they said, and they knew nothing about antiquities. Mr Symes, however, took the view that Mr Michaelides had only been an employee of the company that traded antiquities, called Robin Symes Limited, and that therefore he, Symes, was the lawful owner of the whole business.

Legal action followed. The Greeks took action in London, and succeeded in having Mr Symes’s assets frozen, so that he could only trade with the court’s permission and knowledge. Mr Symes took action in Athens, claiming harassment, an action he subsequently withdrew.

The London court eventually decided that Mr Symes and Mr Michaelides were business partners, and that therefore the latter’s Greek relatives were entitled to 50 per cent of the business assets. In the course of these proceedings, however, Mr Symes, who was then living in Geneva, had his passport impounded, to prevent him leaving the jurisdiction of the court. One of the effects of this was to limit the funds at his disposal. Subsequently, he was unable to pay his solicitors (he had employed several) and, because of this, he was made bankrupt.

So far, this case had been a civil case. However, during the course of the (interlocutory) hearings, it had transpired that Mr Symes, who had originally admitted to storing his assets (mainly antiquities) in five warehouses, in fact had twenty-nine warehouses spread across London, Switzerland and New York. Becoming sceptical of Mr Symes’s openness in disclosing his assets, the lawyers for the Greek family, Messrs Lane and Partners, began to examine some of Mr Symes’s transactions closely. Mr Symes was followed, and the paperwork for his transactions double-checked.

During this scrutiny it emerged that Mr Symes had sold, or said that he had sold, a Granodiorite Egyptian statue of Apollo to a company in America, Philos Partners, of Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Lane and Partners examined this transaction, it turned out that Philos was a fictitious company, and that the address Mr Symes had said he sent the statue to did not exist. It later transpired that the statue had in fact been sold to Sheikh Al-Tani in the Arabian Gulf. Moreover, it had been sold for $4.5 million rather than the $1.6 million that Symes said it had been sold for. He later explained this discrepancy by arguing that he, in fact, owned only a third of the statue, that the other two-thirds was owned by two colleagues, antiquities dealers in Switzerland, Mr Jean-Louis Domercq and Mrs Frieda Nussberger-Chakos.

Still sceptical of this version of events, Mr Justice Peter Smith ordered a trial to ascertain the true ownership of the Granodiorite statue. Although Mr Domercq and Mrs Nussberger-Chakos were joint defendants in this action, neither appeared in court to defend themselves, though a Swiss lawyer representing both did appear. The court found against the defendants, and concluded that Mr Symes owned the statue in its entirety. He was adjudged to have misled the court, to have broken the conditions of the ‘interlocutary regime’, which forbade him to trade without the knowledge or the permission of the court and, in July of 2004, given a one-year suspended sentence.

The original action continued. The Greek relatives of Mr Michaelides were still not convinced that Mr Symes had disclosed all the assets of the business that the two partners had owned. In the course of further researches, they found that, apparently, Mr Symes had lied to the court about two further sets of objects. One was a set of art deco furniture, by the designer Eileen Gray, and the other was a statue of Akhenaten. The Eileen Gray furniture, Mr Symes said, had been sold to a Parisian dealer for $4 million. Lane and Partners eventually traced this sale, and found that Mr Symes had actually sold it for $14 million, with most of the money lodged in a bank in Gibraltar. The statue of Akhenaten, which Mr Symes said he had sold for $3.6 million, had in fact been sold for nearer $8 million, again to Sheikh Al-Tani, with the money lodged in a bank in Liechtenstein.

While Lane and Partners had been pursuing these investigations, Mr Symes had tried to forestall court proceedings by claiming, in the autumn of 2004, that he was mentally incapable of instructing solicitors, and therefore of standing trial. This action failed and Mr Symes was ordered to appear in court again in January 2005.

Until Christmas he had been living at an inn, in a small village near Basingstoke, but just before Christmas he moved into the Savoy Hotel in London. Though bankrupt, Mr Symes has a number of friends who still support him financially. When he appeared in court, however, he claimed he could not afford to pay for lawyers, and asked for a delay to apply for legal aid. Though the judge was unwilling to do this, a short delay was allowed, during which time Mr Symes was twice refused legal aid.

In these circumstances, Mr Symes, unrepresented, produced a witness statement to the court, in which he claimed that the Greek case against him was fabricated. He did not, however, in the opinion of the judge, produce any evidence to support his claims. Elsewhere in the witness statement, moreover, he admitted that he had lied in court, in relation to both the Eileen Gray furniture and the statue of Akhenaten.

The judge took a very severe view of these (now admitted) lies to the court, which involved several million pounds. In his judgement, Mr Justice Peter Smith concluded that Mr Symes had committed ‘a serious and cynical contempt of court’, designed ‘to conceal that he had deliberately taken the proceeds [and] used them for his own purposes’. He said Mr Symes ‘has told numerous lies on oath’ and repeated ‘a false story’.

The judge further said that he was not impressed by Mr Symes’s attempts to suggest that he was confused and muddled by what was going on in court. ‘The admitted contempts show calculated, cynical and well understood acts of deception.’ And he concluded:

Mr Symes must appreciate that he will not be able, if it is his belief, simply to do his time, get his passport back and leave the jurisdiction. There remains a large number of outstanding questions to be answered. Until those questions are answered and dealt with in a meaningful way the possibility of him obtaining his passport back to enable him to leave the jurisdiction is remote … I perceive [that it is] a long and necessary road that Mr Symes still has to go down before this litigation will come to an end.

The fall of Robin Symes, rapid and complete though it has been, may not be over even yet.   

First posted December 2005; Page design updated September 2006