The Art Dealer, His Lover; This Week, Behind Closed Doors at the High Court, a Judge Will Be Asked to Rule in the Latest Bizarre Twist in the Decline and Fall of Flamboyant Antiquities Dealer Robin Symes

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Byline: PETER WATSON

FOR the past 16 months, ever since his passport was impounded, London art dealer Robin Symes has been living in one room - with a single bed and no carpet - over the bar of a pub in Wiltshire. It is a stark contrast to his home for 30 years in Chelsea, with its balcony overlooking a 50ft garden, its Art Deco library, and a swimming pool lined with classical statues. Yesterday he swapped the mean surroundings of a bare room for even more sobering circumstances: Court 61 at the High Court in the Strand. In a trial behind closed doors that is expected to last 10 days, Symes, 64, the capital's most successful art dealer in recent years, faces a mental incapacity hearing that could well determine whether or not he goes to jail.

The proceedings will make for an exotic mixture. On the one hand the court will hear of multi-millionpound deals involving beautiful statues of ancient Egyptian gods.

On the other, the trial will hear from some of the most distinguished psychiatrists in the country about his state of mind. And, in an extraordinary twist, no fewer than seven lawyers who once acted for Symes will now give evidence against him.

It is the latest humiliation in a five-year fall from grace that has seen the dealer aggressively sued by the Greek relatives of his former partner.

He has subsequently been made bankrupt, lost his home, had his passport taken away and can no longer trade without the permission of the court. His entire business, every asset he possesses - including Rolex watches and Cartier cuff links - are being fought over.

Until five years ago, Symes lived an enviable lifestyle. With his Greek partner, Christo Michailides, six years his junior, he dealt in Greek, Egyptian, Italian and other antiquities. His gallery in Ormond Yard, just off Jermyn Street, SW1, was a meeting place for the world's richest collectors, including J Paul Getty.

In London, Symes and Christo lived in the Chelsea house, but also had apartments in New York and Athens, and a villa on a private island in Greece owned by the Papadimitrious, the shipping family that Christo's sister, Despina, had married into. They drove a silver Rolls, a maroon Bentley and shared a yacht.

Always controversial (he was several times implicated in trading smuggled or stolen goods), Symes was nonetheless amazingly successful: the business was valued at one point at [pounds sterling]125 million.

Then, five years ago, on 4 July 1999, tragedy struck.

While staying with some American collectors in a rented villa in Umbria, Italy, Christo slipped on some steps, hit his head and died in hospital the next day. A charismatic and handsome man, his family and friends were distraught.

Once the grief began to subside, however, the Papadimitrious asked Symes for Christo's share of the business, which they had inherited, to be sold off.

A major rift emerged between the Greeks and Symes, one which has grown increasingly bitter and has had disastrous consequences.

Symes and Christo met in 1967, when Christo stopped by Symes's gallery in the King's Road. At the time, the Englishman was married and the Greek had a girlfriend.

Shortly after, however, the two men moved in together. Everyone in the art world assumed they were a gay couple, and Symes readily admits that "we loved each other". He is quick to add, though, that "we never had a sexual relationship".

Despite their intimacy, Symes insisted to the Greeks that Christo was only ever an employee of his company, and his death changed nothing: Robin Symes Limited belonged to Robin Symes and the assets were his alone.

The Papadimitrious disagreed. Their 29 tankers and container ships yield an income of more than $30 million a year and Despina says she often provided funds for her brother to buy antiquities, once guaranteeing a $17 million loan the company needed. …