THEO PANAYIDES meets a sentimental soul who has lived the good life, even if much of it was spent upstairs from the family museum
The first Pierides to arrive in Cyprus was also a Demetrios – and already, it seems, an important person. He came from Venice in 1753 (the family name was then Pieraki), with a decree from the Doge naming him as consul. “And ever since, 11 generations, we are here,” says his descendant, the current Demetrios, sitting in the drawing room of the 19th-century family home in Larnaca, upstairs from the museum which bears the family name.
The family looms large in his life; it always has. Demetrios Pierides’ great-grandfather was the first Greek mayor of Larnaca. His father Zenon was also mayor of Larnaca. Their social contribution may be glimpsed in every corner of the city: “The general hospital, the town hall, the municipal garden, the poorhouse, the old people’s home, the church, the theatre, the municipal market – all these are donations from the family”. Demetrios’ CV lists the businesses carried out by the family group of companies, though most of these are inactive (he estimates he lost around 85 per cent of his fortune in 1974, when the Turks took Famagusta): “Shipping, since 1860; Banking, since 1866; Insurance, since 1872; Hotels, since 1962; Airlines, since 1937; Tourism, Real Estate and Motor Car Imports, since 1958”.
The family informs who he is, and of course what he says. I’m under no illusions that I got him to drop his guard, or forget his status as spokesman for the House of Pierides – though he does have impeccable manners. He greets me in a navy-blue jacket (I’m in a T-shirt), which he then makes a show of taking off: “Since you’re ‘casual’, I will be too,” he offers magnanimously. It’s almost a performance, the grand old man in his 22-room mansion with the splendid garden – which he’s actually tried to make listed, he explains, to ensure it won’t succumb to anything as vulgar as development. “How many times have people told me, ‘Are you crazy, you have this huge garden and you did not build a hotel here?’.” Demetrios shakes his head: “The araucarias are 154 years old. To be cut, and made a boutique hotel? For God’s sake!”. He smiles, and leads me on a tour of the museum. We meet on June 29, a day before his 81st birthday.
The museum is fascinating, showcasing five generations of Pierides resourcefulness. “My father’s Roman-glass collection is among the most important in Europe,” he notes in passing, guiding me through the small rooms. There’s a slight DIY, amateur-enthusiast feel to the place – it’s literally just the ground floor of an old family home – without much in the way of detailed descriptions. It’s easy to miss treasures like the large terracotta idol found in Souskiou, near Paphos, dating from the Chalcolithic period, or what Demetrios calls “the astronaut” – a baffling bichrome jug from the Cypro-Archaic period (around 650 BC) adorned with a weird humanoid figure who wears what looks like a diving helmet, has four fingers on each hand, and appears to be sitting on a chair that’s either jet-powered or spring-loaded. A god? An artist’s flight of fancy? Or perhaps a memory of a visiting alien? Where’s Erich von Daniken when you need him?
The museum is fascinating – but the private residence upstairs is something else again. In a glass case, at the top of the stairs, are the nine medals which our host has been awarded over the years – this one by Chirac, that one by Papoulias or Berlusconi; Commander of the National Order of Merit, Gold Cross of the Order of Honour, the Royal Order of the Polar Star presented by King Carl Gustav of Sweden. Then you come to the drawing room and adjoining dining room, an enormous space once again festooned with photos.
One section is devoted to celebrities: Demetrios with Sean Connery (who’s twice been a guest at his home in Glyfada), with Telly Savalas, with Melina Mercouri. Another section he wryly describes as “Those who failed to solve the Cyprus problem”, meaning all the presidents of Cyprus from Makarios onwards. (They all posed with him happily enough, down to the current incumbent.) Yet another table is loaded with pictures of royalty: King Umberto I of Italy looking very athletic; a 1947 snap of Simeon II, the exiled boy king of Bulgaria. Demetrios Pierides seems a little obsessed with royalty – and of course the subtext is clear, viz. that he himself is a kind of royalty, or as close as we come to it in Cyprus. He’s the scion (and only son) of a grand and wealthy family: business people, patrons of the arts, and – as he tells it – almost too philanthropic for their own good.
“Would you say there’s a touch of ‘noblesse oblige’ in your makeup?”
“Could be, yes,” he replies, then looks at me anxiously: “Does it sound snobbish?”.
The response says much about the man – because Demetrios comes across as a sensitive, sentimental soul, a man who revels in his position but would much prefer to be loved than feared. To be called a snob would hurt him as deeply, I suspect, as being called vulgar (probably more, since he knows the latter charge to be baseless). At one point I ask if he has an artistic streak, given his love of the arts; “Thank God, no,” he replies with a laugh, “because I’ve never heard a living painter say a good word about another living painter!” – the implication being that life as an artist would’ve made him enemies, and caused him pain. He runs on feelings, and human relationships. He studied Psychology for a year, alongside his main degree (Economics and Law, in Lausanne), but dropped out of the course because he didn’t want to approach people scientifically; he preferred to go with his heart – even when it made for bad business.
All his life, he admits wryly, “I was expecting to get £1,000, but in my mind I had already spent £1,300. Because I always believed that, when you get, your hand is full – but when you give, your heart is full. And I was not, in the strict sense of a businessman, a good businessman.”
Culture, of course, was the main beneficiary of these unprofitable numbers. He married briefly, in the late 1960s – but soon split up and instead “became married to culture”, which made much more sense. The museum in Larnaca pre-dates him, of course – but he also founded the Pierides Foundation, through which he expanded the family’s empire significantly: a museum of contemporary art in Athens (where he lived for “20 beautiful years” till the mid-90s), the Municipal Arts Centre in Nicosia, two marine-themed museums in Ayia Napa, an Ethnographic Museum in a country house belonging to his GP in the village of Avgorou. Seems a bit risky, building a museum in a small village, I point out; maybe not the best business decision. “You say ‘business’,” he shrugs in reply, “but the culture, and the museums, do not bring money… On the contrary, I spent a great deal of money, especially to collect those 600 beautiful artefacts of our prehistoric times”.
That’s a reference to perhaps his happiest decade: 1964-74, when business was booming in Famagusta, Demetrios was a dashing young man with a world-class collection of sports cars, and the newly-formed Turkish Cypriot enclaves provided a unique opportunity for the serious collector. The enclaves were protected by the UN, free to do what they liked – so “they were excavating every night in prehistoric necropolises, like in Kotsiatis, Marki and Souskiou, and bringing to light these beautiful pieces… And I doubled the prices, so everyone knew there’s a crazy man in Famagusta who, if you showed him what you had in a sketch –” he shrugs, as if to say ‘The rest is history’. He had Turkish Cypriot agents keeping an eye on things, contacting him straight away when new treasures were unearthed; in all, more than 600 pieces made their way into the Pierides vaults. It wasn’t just a passion for collecting, he muses: “It was also, if you like, a minimum of a social and family duty, to continue what five generations before me started”.
There it is again: duty, status, the burden of family. His path was set from childhood, the pressure enormous; the Pierides name had to be safeguarded. “I had no choice,” he shrugs. “I wanted to follow my uncle Zenon Rossides, who was for years ambassador to Washington and the United Nations. He had no children and he liked me very much, and I wanted to go and live with him in New York – but I had no choice. I had to come back and look after all the family businesses. With no regrets, of course,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
Being born rich, it turns out, is almost as much of a trap as being born poor – though of course the fringe benefits are better. Take that collection of cars, for instance: three Aston Martins (including the DB5, which he bought after watching Goldfinger but before becoming mates with Sean Connery), two Ferraris (a Superamerica and a Testarossa), a Maserati, an Iso Rivolta. “I enjoyed the Lamborghini Espada for at least 20 years,” he recalls – but then foolishly switched to a Lamborghini Diablo which turned out to be a disaster, far too low and without any luggage space, so he sent it back after two months with a disapproving note. You know you’re living the good life when your new Lamborghini isn’t up to the standards of your old Lamborghini.
Demetrios did live the good life: not just the cars but yachts, skiing holidays, trips to Paris and the Riviera. But it wasn’t a wild life, he insists. There were plenty of parties, but “no nightlife” – and besides, “I have always been careful”. He’s never stayed up too late, even in Athens with its crazy rhythms, only smoked once in his life (a pipe, in Lausanne as a student; he hated it), will drink maybe “one glass of red wine in winter, now and then, and some beer in the summer”. Perhaps it’s his character – or perhaps it’s the family again, that dutiful repression of his wilder instincts that’s been second nature since childhood.
He recalls his frustration as an active little boy forced to “live in a museum”, and how he chafed against always being told to be careful. He recalls missing school trips because such-and-such a prince, or archbishop, or prime minister was coming to visit, and little Demetrios had to be there to shake hands. He also recalls an intriguing story, of driving from Bari to Rimini on a Sunday morning back in the day. “I knew that it was a straight road, not even a small bend – and I was alone.” There was no traffic at all, so he stepped on the gas – but suddenly, “when I reached 230km/h in my Ferrari Superamerica, I said to myself: ‘What are you doing? One small stone in the road – and finished! Don’t you have responsibilities to others? If you are killed, whom are you killing also? Your father, your mother’… And I never, ever went above a certain speed again.”
Some may call that repression, others civic duty. Demetrios Pierides has done his bit, to be sure; he hasn’t just posed for photos with the elite, he’s been one of them. He’s chaired 28 companies and was on the Bank of Cyprus board for 13 years, till 2006. (“Of course, to be on the board of Bank of Cyprus was also a family tradition – because the bank was created by my grandfather, amongst others.”) He was instrumental in founding the bank’s Greek network, and still can’t comprehend why Cypriot banks in Greece were sold for such a pittance around the time of the haircut. He’s twice declined offers of a ministry, and fended off entreaties to follow his father as mayor of Larnaca.
His worldview, it must be said, is quite hierarchical, with a healthy respect for authority and a faith in the rich and powerful getting it right. We talk a bit about politics, and I’m surprised to find that he welcomes America’s recent interventions in the Middle East, even the decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. “They will meet with Putin,” he asserts confidently, “and find another Yalta”. And of course his hierarchical thinking goes all the way to the top: “I have a great belief in God, [and] I pray and ask for pardon every night”.
One small detail remains to be sorted. Demetrios has no children – so what happens to this priceless collection when others take over, and (more importantly) what happens to the great Pierides legacy? Hard to say, but he’s not without willing hands. His nephew Peter Ashdjian currently manages the museum and Foundation; another nephew, Zenon, lives in Limassol; a nine-year-old boy named Panayiotis also appears as I take my leave, introduced as Demetrios’ grandson though actually his godson (the two seem close, Pierides calling himself the boy’s “third grandfather”). One way or another, I suspect, the duty that’s dominated – and sometimes repressed – his life for eight decades won’t be forgotten. The family goes on.