The trader, the princess and pounds 8m

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HERE is a strange tale of an African country, an Armenian-British commodity trader and a Russian princess. The country is the Ivory Coast whose government in 1989 asked Artin Moutafian (the trader) to market its entire cocoa crop. The sale earned him the soubriquet "The Cocoa King", but little else. He pressed the Ivorian government for payment, and in 1991 the High Court in London judged that it should pay him pounds 7.9m. He died the next year but his wife, Princess Helena Moutafian, is still trying to get hold of the money. She has sent a representative to Ivory Coast and is, I am told, "deeply distressed" by the whole business. The Ivorian ambassador was asked to comment, but has not so far done so.

That is the bare bones of the story - but it is the background of this extraordinary couple that is so gripping. Artin Moutafian's father was killed by the Turks in the Armenian massacre in 1915. He moved to Istanbul, and at the age of 17 started trading cotton in Egypt. He arrived in England in 1948 on a business trip, but liked it so much that he stayed - living in the Savoy Hotel, and later at a huge house in Hampstead. His City- based company, Moutafian Commodities, dealt in cotton, dried fruit, coffee and cocoa. His Ivory Coast deal should have been a career-topping coup - shame it went sour.

And if he wasn't interesting enough, try Helena, daughter of the Russian prince Alexei Gagarin. She is a good chum of Barbara Cartland, and she spent her times doing good works, particularly for Russian and Armenian charities. According to Artin's obituary the couple "became objects of curiosity for the Russian press". And for the British one.

BUNHILL likes good news. So I am delighted to tell you about the economic boom that is about to be visited on Alness, a small community in Easter Ross, north of Inverness. In the last two weeks Pro Golf 2000, which is based there, has started producing the world's first weight adjustable putter.

I am no golfer, but neither is the man who invented it. He is called Tom Duffy, the same Tom Duffy who invented the sporran whisky flask. But do not think that the putter is a flippant or silly idea. Mr Duffy, who works for Pro Golf 2000, thought it up while comforting a friend who blamed his poor performance in a competition on having an obese (or maybe underweight) putter.

The company has since spent pounds 200,000 and three years perfecting the device. Weights can be moved up and down the shaft, so that a golfer can change the head's weight in 10g increments. The Royal and Ancient at St Andrews has approved it, and demand has been so strong that Pro Golf 2000 intends to increase its staff from 14 to 30. It has also signed a deal to have 450,000 clubs made in Australia for the Far Eastern market.

Alan Wilson, the company's managing director, says that his main worry is "to make sure we don't grow too fast". What a nice worry to have.

It's good to dribble

MRS Bunhill was at the Crystal Palace swimming pool with the Small Bunhills last week when she spotted a notice. Earn pounds 500, it said, just by having a cute child who likes swimming, is under 18 months and is available to take part in a Mercury advertisement. By chance she had one such to hand, and immediately signed up. Young Megan has had Hollywood written all over her ever since she was born; here clearly was her first step on the glittering pathway.

Then came a frantic phone call - it's all off, a voice said. Tough, we thought, Megan probably won't get an Oscar now until she's at least five.

I rang Mercury to find out what had happened. The lady was wonderfully apologetic. "We are terribly terribly sorry this happened," she says. It seems that Mercury has been planning to do television versions of its "Oliver and Claire" cartoons. Claire is a rather strange baby who hovers above Oliver making pithy comments, and it was her role that was being cast. Unfortunately the person arranging it, who was working for Mercury's ad agency HHCL, had not cleared this with his client. "We were totally unaware of it and when we learnt about it, the leaflet was withdrawn," the lady said, adding that the offending recruiter had been fired.

Which is all quite exciting. But one day, presumably, a new Claire will be cast. Megan would obviously win (even though she can't fly), but should we put her through it? I have read enough PG Wodehouse to know that there is nothing more terrifying that a "bonny baby competition". The losing mothers are invariably at each others' throats, and the least coveted job in Wodehouse-land is that of judge in such a contest. Perhaps Mercury should have let the agent go ahead, with himself as the judge, and watched the mothers tear him to bits.

A POSTSCRIPT to my (ultimately successful) hunt for Welsh entrepreneurs. From tomorrow, Wales will have a new biggest company. Ring up what you thought was Welsh Water and you will be greeted with "Good, morning Hyder, Bore Da Hyder." Bore Da means Good Day, but what is this Hyder?

It is of course Welsh Water's new name, but I fear it is being a little too clever. Hyder in English is supposed to sound vaguely like Hydra, Greek for water. Hyder in Welsh (pronounced Hudda) means confidence. So Welsh speakers will hear someone saying: "Good morning confidence." Which will baffle them, I would have thought.