Obituary: Stavros Niarchos

Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipowner and art collector, was a self-made businessman of immense wealth and with an exceptional ability to make and waste vast sums of money.

Niarchos's short stature (he was only 5ft 5in tall) contrasted with his debonair personality; his middle-class origins with his aristocratic aspirations and staunch royalist sympathies; his commercial acumen in international shipping with his spendthrift involvements in horse-racing, womanising and rivalries for personal grandeur. Stalked by power and riches the world over, he was unable to reconcile his domineering ambitions with the considerations of family life. He brooked no opposition, suffered consequent losses and abandonments but always managed to look tenaciously ahead.

Stavros Niarchos was born in Athens, in 1909, three months after his parents, naturalised US citizens, had returned to their native country on making their fortune with a department store in Buffalo, New York. After graduating in Law at Athens University, he entered the business world through a chain of flour mills owned by his mother's family, the Coumandaros. By the time he was 30 he had built up the shipping side of the business, chartering vessels to carry wheat from Argentina and elsewhere. By 1935 he was able to persuade the company to invest in six freighters for transatlantic grain transport and himself profited from this expansion by acquiring one of them, in 1939. It was an auspicious move. The vessel traded profitably both before and during the Second World War, thus enabling Niarchos to widen his circle of operations to London and New York.

When Greece entered the war, he joined the Royal Hellenic Navy, serving on North Atlantic convoys with the rank of lieutenant-commander; he was later named Honorary Naval Attache to the Greek embassy in Washington (1944-48). Along with Manuel Kulukundis, C.M. Lemos and others, he was instrumental in securing from the US government the favourable sale of 100 Liberty ships to Greek shipowners in compensation for damages suffered in the Allied war effort. The sale revived the fortunes of Greece's depleted merchant marine and made possible its post-war renascence.

Following the dissolution of his childless second marriage in 1947, Niarchos became a suitor to the shipping tycoon S.G. Livanos's elder daughter, the 21-year-old Eugenia. The Livanos family had been resident in New York since the war and Aristotle Onassis had already proved himself eligible for the hand of the younger daughter, Tina. Eugenia had been brought up with a strong sense of moral duty and familial devotion; in the course of 23 challenging years of marriage she proved an intelligent, dedicated wife and mother.

Niarchos, like most Greek shipowners, had committed all ships under his management to the Allied war effort and lost six of 14 carriers. He retrieved some of his losses through insurance and proceeded to buy US-built Liberty and Victory dry cargo ships, as well as T2 oil-tankers. Soon after, he initiated an important shipbuilding programme with American shipyards which increased and consolidated his fleet. His newbuildings were financed by construction loans guaranteed to the banks by the performance of long- term charters. This broke new ground in international ship finance, especially since each ship was regarded as an independent economic unit.

Moreover, Niarchos spearheaded the gradual increase in tanker capacity from the pre-war 18,000 tonnes deadweight (d.w.) to the 80,000 d.w. of the late Fifties. His phenomenal success was primarily due to the early realisation that oil would replace coal as the primary fuel of the world economy. "I am first-generation Niarchos," he used to boast in answer to accusations of unfair competition by the traditional shipowners of the time.

By 1956 Niarchos's fleet was the largest in the world, with 60 ships trading and on order, totalling almost 2 million tonnes. In 1959-60 he was able to procure massive contracts with the Soviet government for the carriage of Black Sea oil to Japan, Scandinavia and Italy. Although he was criticised by the English press for providing the Communists with what amounted to a captive fleet, thus allowing Russian tankers to supply and strengthen Cuba at the peak of the Cold War, Niarchos defended his decision in court and was granted a full apology on the grounds that his contracts were in no way detrimental to Western defence interests and that, as an international businessman, he had the right to trade freely.

By 1966 his fleet comprised 72 ships trading and 16 on order, including substantial modern and super tonnage. His investments had diversified into stocks and real estate. His art collection had grown impressively, especially after the 1958 acquisition of Edward G. Robinson's excellent collection of Impressionist paintings. It now included works by Corot, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Cezanne, Utrillo and Picasso, as well as the magnificent 1585 Pieta by El Greco. He owned fabulous homes in St Moritz, New York, Antibes and Paris, where he had renovated the 18th-century Hotel de Chanalleiles, once presented by Louis XIV to his son the Duc de Maine. In 1962 Niarchos bought the island of Spetsopoula, 53 miles south of Piraeus, and started transforming it from a heap of wind-swept rocks into an Aegean paradise of lush greenery, quiet beaches, rich game and the latest in business technology and communications.

The marriage with Eugenia was interrupted rudely in 1964 on account of Niarchos's tumultuous affair with Charlotte Ford, the 24-year-old daughter of Henry Ford II. They were married in Mexico and had one child. After this escapade came to a bitter end in 1967, Niarchos retraced his steps to Eugenia with impunity - the Greek Orthodox Church had never dissolved their wedlock.

Three years later, Eugenia died from an overdose of barbiturates while holidaying on Spetsopoula. The Piraeus public prosecutor challenged medical reports and accused Niarchos of inflicting fatal injuries on his wife. There were allegations at the time of a high-level cover-up which Niarchos had ostensibly engineered with the collusion of the military junta ruling Greece. It was well known that he, like Onassis, maintained close relations with the Colonels and was active in bringing badly needed investments into the country. A judicial tribunal heard the case in September 1970 and exonerated Niarchos.

Vindicated and relieved, he renewed his friendship with his wife's sister, Tina, recently divorced from her second husband, the Marquess of Blandford. They were married in 1971 with the approval of the bride's mother, Mme Arietta Livanos. The grand old lady is reputed to have told them that their marriage would not only show the world that Niarchos was innocent of Eugenia's death but also that the family had stuck together in the face of adversity. Her words challenged fate: two years later Tina's son, Alexandros Onassis, crashed in his private jet and the year following Tina herself died in Paris of a heart attack.

Niarchos was a world-class entrepreneur with a special flare for public relations. After accepting late delivery of two 260,000-d.w. supertankers from British Shipbuilders in 1978-80, he was accused of taking advantage of British taxpayers' money: the vessels had been ordered at pounds 17m each, including pounds 4m in government subsidies. Contractual terms entitled Niarchos to a pounds 4m reduction on each vessel and BS had agreed to let go of the second vessel at pounds 14m. Peeved by Tory accusations in Parliament, Niarchos announced he was ready to reverse the purchase and sell the tankers back to the yard at the original price, forgoing interest. BS found the offer embarrassing and chose to sidestep it.

Niarchos was a firm believer in hard work and fair play. He always maintained close ties with his native Greece and, in addition to operating most of his fleet under the Greek flag, invested heavily in the country's industrial base. It is probably through no fault of his own that two of his major enterprises, the Aspropyrgos Oil Refinery and the Hellenic Shipyards at Skaramanga, came to no good. Government intervention, union interference with overmanning problems and the oil crisis, followed by the prolonged shipping crisis of 1981-86, forced him to pull out of both projects.

A successful capitalist, he had always been regarded by Greek socialists as a bete noire and had to endure the calumnies of adverse publicity and incessant litigation. In 1985 he characteristically offered Hellenic Shipyards to the state-owned Industrial Development Bank for $10m, one-tenth its book value, thus assessing the company's negative worth in terms of labour unrest and minimal productivity at $90m. The socialist government of Andreas Papandreou snapped up the bargain.

Niarchos's frivolous side included an impulsive sortie into racing reputed to have cost him $100m, as well as a number of liaisons amoureuses during his autumnal years with such famous socialites as Ellen d'Estain Ville, Princess Firyal of Jordan and the Italian heiress Marina Palma. At different times he owned the world's most expensive private jet, a Grumman Gulfstream 2 (then valued at pounds 1m), and the world's most luxurious yacht, the fabulous 3,600-ton Atlantis. His net worth has been estimated at $5bn.

Successful in business, successful in racing, writes Richard Griffiths. Stavros Niarchos was a man who enjoyed his fair share of achievements in both spheres. For a period spanning three decades, Niarchos's navy and pale blue colours were as well known as any.

His standard-bearer was a plain-looking filly called Miesque, who belied her appearance to become one of the most outstanding milers racing has seen. Two years running she won the Breeders' Cup Mile in North America. The end-of- season championship series is regarded as extremely difficult for runners from Europe to win; it says everything for the talent of Miesque, and her trainer Francois Boutin, that she was able to achieve the feat twice.

Niarchos first became involved in racing in the 1950s and his Midas touch immediately became apparent with Oleandrin, a leading two-year-old in 1952 who went on to finish third as a three-year-old in the 2,000 Guineas. Four years later Pipe of Peace, another top two-year-old, also went on to finish third in the Guineas for him.

Soon after Niarchos's interest in racing began to wane, and it was not until the 1980s that he really became a force again. That coincided with his purchase of a former leading stud in France, the Haras de Fresnay- le-Buffard, whose fortunes Niarchos, backed by a team of able advisers, revived. The stud also became a leading race sponsor, backing the Prix Jacques le Marois, the highlight of the big Deauville meeting in August.

Niarchos's investment soon paid off with back-to-back successes in the French 2,000 Guineas with Melyno in 1992 and L'Emigrant in 1993. Later, between 1991 and 1993, he achieved an unprecedented hat-trick of wins in the same race with Hector Protector, Shanghai and Kingmambo. Other leading colts he owned were Machiavellian and the French Derby-winner Hernando.

All these horses were trained by the late Francois Boutin, without whom it is questionable Niarchos would have enjoyed such success. The brilliant Miesque, as well as those two fabulous Breeders' Cup wins, also won the English 1,000 Guineas in 1987 and the Prix du Moulin, another big mile race.

Niarchos had horses with British trainers, most notably Henry Cecil, who sent out talented fillies like Gwydion and Chimes of Freedom.

In the Eighties Niarchos went into short-lived partnership with another leading owner, Robert Sangster. Law Society was among the best of their horses, winning the Irish Derby in 1985.

Niarchos's biggest disappointment as a racehorse owner came in 1980 when his talented but unlucky colt Nureyev was disqualified from first place in the 2,000 Guineas.

Stavros Spyros Niarchos, shipowner, art collector, racehorse owner: born Athens 3 July 1909; married 1930 Helen Sporides (marriage dissolved 1930), 1939 Melpomene Capparis (marriage dissolved 1947), 1947 Eugenia Livanos (died 1970; three sons, one daughter), 1965 Charlotte Ford (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967), 1971 Mrs Athina Livanos-Onassis-Blandford (died 1974); died Zurich 15 April 1996.

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