Saturday, October 30, 2010

Watchdealing

Because of a watch, made by Rolex company for the British Military, I couldn't go back to Cyprus for years. It happened like this.

I had already bought one of the two watches of this kind from a watchmaker turned insurance salesman in Limassol. It took about 6 months of visits to his shop where he still worked on Saturdays, conversation after conversation, negotiation after negotiation. That is when he showed up for our appointments, which wasn't often. I'd learned that he had the watches from the a dealer in military surplus who decades ago sold them to the watchmaker's father, who was also a watchmaker.

Probably both watches made up a collection of replacement parts kept by the Military for repairing their other watches. Most of their parts had been removed. The first watch I bought was a badly damaged case, with its back gouged by a screwdriver, an oil stained face, and a few pieces of the movement. This was enough to get the factory to supply the rest, and the watch was completely restored. I made a good profit, information that I did not keep from the watchmaker.

The other watch would be nearly impossible to buy: the case and face were in better condition, the movement had retained more parts, but most importantly, the watchmaker knew I had made money last time. For watch dealers, if a sale is good for you, it must be bad for them.

I told all this to American watch dealer I knew in Zurich. He said he who knew a collector in New York who would pay a high enough price for the watch. I called Cyprus, asked the watchmaker if he still had the watch. He did, but a friend who had asked to borrow the watch to get an estimate of repair cost, had without permission sent the watch off to get repaired. This was interesting: the American watch dealer in Zurich had done the same to me with the first watch: I had to go with him to the service office to take back the watch. The Cyprus watchmaker said he'd get back the watch, but what if it had been repaired? I'd pay the cost, I said, and made an offer for the watch at a very high price. He said he'd think about it.

The next week he called me in Zurich, accepting my offer. When was I coming to Cyprus? I'd come the following week, if he would have the watch back by then. Agreed. The watch was already back from repair - it was more than a thousand dollars, was that alright? Yes. Where was the watch? Friend still had it. He wants to get the money he spent on it. I'll pay him, so long as he has a receipt for the repair.

A couple of days before Christmas, I fly to Cyprus on a 3 day return ticket. British politeness, Byzantine corruption, thousand of street cats fed by the restaurant workers, quiet. Biting wind, sunshine.

I meet the watchmaker at his shop the next afternoon, a Saturday. I hand over the gold watch that is part of the payment we had settled on. There's a problem, he says then. His friend doesn't want to give back the watch. I ask why not.

-- He now says he spent $2000 on the repair.
-- If he shows me the receipt, I will pay it.
-- What will you do, if I keep the gold watch, and don't get the Rolex for you? Go to the police?
-- Don't be ridiculous.

He is clearly not being ridiculous. He has a conversation in Greek with another friend who's with us here in the shop. He says, you make too much profit. I go over in detail what the last watch cost me, how much money I payed for repair and how long I waited, how long it was before I sold it and what I sold it for. He asks if he can keep the paper I made the calculations on. More conversation in Greek. O.K., he says then, let's go get the watch.

We drive to the friend's house. It is dark. Dogs bark. No one comes to the door. Better if we wait at the watchmaker's house that's just around the corner. He keeps trying to call the friend, while his wife makes coffee. Finally his call is answered. Loud argument ensues. Let's go back, the watchmaker says when he puts down the phone.

After some shouting, the friend emerges from his dark house. We are introduced. I ask him what the problem is. He only wants to get back the money he laid out for the repair. Show me the receipt, I say, and I'll pay him whatever is the cost. He doesn't have it. I say he can ask the repair company to fax him a copy.

-- No. I have the watch. If you want it, you'll have to pay my price.
-- Did you buy the watch? Pay anything for it?
-- No.
-- Did you have permission to repair it?
-- No.
-- I don't see how it's your watch.
-- I have possession of it. Legally it's mine.

Let's go to the police, the watchmaker interrupts. His friend answers,

-- Won't do you any good, the chief of police is a friend of mine.

That at least was true, as it turned out.

I give up, it's midnight. I ask the watchmaker to take me to my hotel. A couple hours later I'm woken up by pebbles being thrown at my window. Watchmaker is outside the hotel with the police. I get dressed and go down. The friend has been arrested for theft. I am needed at the station to give a statement. This takes several hours.

The watch has been taken as evidence. The case is being investigated. The police drive me home to the hotel.

During the next several months, every time I came to Cyprus, I would visit the detectives' offices, book in one hand, coffee cup in the other. I'd sit patiently in the waiting room. Eventually someone would see me, report: "The investigation is still in progress."

During this period, the watch dealer knew nothing, had done nothing. He was waiting, like me. Next time I visited the Limassol Police I asked to see the chief of detectives. I was led to his office.

-- Do you know why I'm here?
-- Yes.
-- I'd like to know why you haven't finished your investigation. It's been 6 months.
-- That's normal for Cyprus.
-- But what are you doing? What did you investigate this month?
-- Nothing.
-- Last month?
-- Nothing.
-- Month before? (No answer.) Why aren't you investigating? (No answer.) You won't answer?
-- Do you want me to tell you why I'm not investigating?
-- Yes.

He picks up his telephone, speaks a few words. One by one detectives come filing into the room, line themselves up along the wall.

-- You want to know why I'm not investigating?
-- Yes.
-- Because I don't want to. Get out.

"Get out," all the detectives repeat in chorus. What a joke, I observe to anyone listening. I step down the hall to the chief of police's office. He happens to be in.

-- Do you know about this investigation I am here about?

He stares at me without answering.

-- About the watch?
-- Yes. What do you want?
-- To say the game is just beginning.
-- I'm not interested. Go.

All it took was one call to the American Embassy in Nicosia. A consular assistant wrote a letter to the police in Limassol, asking, what about this watch? And the next day their "investigation" was completed. No charge would be pressed against the friend for stealing. Since the police had the watch from him, to him it would be returned, at the end of a one week period unless I took legal action to stop this from happening. This was the decision of the prosecutor's office in the capitol, according to the police.

I went to the prosecutors office in Nicosia to check to see if this was true. It was. What could I do, I ask the office clerk? Write a letter to the attorney General. I do it. On the last day before the watch is to be handed over, letter unanswered of course, I return to the Prosecutor's Offices. I ask to speak to the prosecutor who handled the "investigation". He's not available. I'll wait. A few minutes later I am escorted to his office.

He says he will reopen the investigation if I want him to. But in his opinion, it's a waste of time. If the friend loses the criminal case, he can appeal. It might take years. Much better to file a civil law suit against him. That also will take years, I object. Maybe not, the prosecutor answers. Depends on what his lawyer advises when he gets notice of suit. Could he recommend a lawyer in Nicosia? (I had already been introduced to a lawyer in Limassol by the owners of my hotel, which lawyer it turned out had ties to the watchmaker and his friend, in fact everyone concerned.) The prosecutor wonders if that would be ethical. Has a short conversation in Greek with a colleague. He decides he could recommend his cousin. He's just begun to practice law in his mother's office. O.K. An appointment is made for the next day. There is time, the prosecutor assures me. The watch isn't going anywhere.

The next day in the young lawyers office I present the "Bill Of Sale" I'd convinced the watchmaker to make out for me.. Tax stamped, witnessed by the owner of my hotel, dated and signed, very official looking. Was it legal? I ask. Yes, there was precedent for putting into written form an earlier oral agreement. (The lawyer in Limassol I mentioned had said it was a "forged document".) What should I do? Apply for a court order to take the watch from the police into the keeping of the court. Then sue both watchmaker and friend. How much will it cost? 600 dollars for court and legal fees. I put down 900 Swiss Francs on his desk.

Within 2 days, he has got his court order, and in a few more days has filed his civil suits against watchmaker and friend. He calls me in Zurich at Ursula's house the next week. The friend has made an offer of settlement: if I pay the repair cost which he now says is 1000 dollars, he will give up claim to the watch. I immediately accept. (This is what comes of hiring a lawyer whose mother was the first women member of Congress.)

Back in Cyprus the next week, I see my lawyer in Nicosia. I leave with him about 1100 dollars to be picked up by the watchmaker, the balance of the price for the watch minus my costs of getting the watch back from his friend. The next morning, I am about the leave my hotel room for the meeting of lawyers at the courthouse, when there is a knock on the door. It's the watchmaker. The hotel owner called him to let him know I was going to court to get the watch. He wants to come with me.

I drive with him to the court. Hours pass waiting. He can't stay, he has to go to his new job near Paphos. I tell him that if I do get the watch, he could pick up his money from my lawyer. I was leaving Cyprus that afternoon in any case.

An hour later, my lawyer's local representative arrives. We try to get the court to show us the watch. First they say they don't have it. Then they refuse. Finally the lawyer for the friend arrives. Do you have the money? he asks. I hand it over. The lawyer says, as he counts the money, that the best part of his life for the past year has been spent fighting over this watch. (I realize that my irritation of the police had some effect after all.) Why? I ask. It wasn't your client's. He had possession of it, he responds. I wait outside as he goes into an office and shuts the door behind him.

When he emerges, he passes papers to my lawyer's representative, and goes on his way. Downstairs, in another office, papers presented, the safe is opened, and the watch I hadn't seen for 2 years is mine. But was it the same watch? New crystal, hands and winding crown, maybe new face. The case had been inexpertly, and incompletely polished. Before going to the airport I stop by the hotel to pick up my bag. The hotel owner asks if I'm satisfied now that I have the watch. I'd been staying at this family hotel for a couple years, they knew the whole story. No, it's only a watch. I ask in return why he called the watch dealer to let him know I was going to court. He's Cypriot, he answers. (And a regular customer of the hotel, bringing Russian prostitutes there on the weekends.) The next day in Zurich I take the watch to a Rolex agent and get a written report of its supposed service. I send a FAX, "not serviced" written on the agency's letterhead, to my lawyer, instructing him not to pay the watchmaker. Once I deduct the 1000 dollars payed to the friend for the service not done, there is no money owed him. My lawyer doesn't like this. It's not the watchmaker's fault, he says. But it is, I respond: It's likely that they were working together to try to cheat me, before they had their falling out, and even if not, the watchmaker is responsible for what it cost me to get the watch. "Don't come back to Cyprus," he warns me. That's alright. I don't plan to.