Serpieri, Giovanni Battista
Giovanni Battista Serpieri was the first foreign ‘mega-entrepreneur’ to invest in Greece. He was demonized almost immediately after he had invested fifteen million drachmas to gain the concession to re-open the Lavrion Mines, the same mines that had made ancient Athens an economic powerhouse. Led by Epaminondas Deligiorgis the opposition in the Greek parliament raised questions about the legality of his concession. Journalists filled the newspapers of the day with endless articles and analyses and, as the debate gained critical mass, inflated and fantastical financial expectations about the mine’s potential began to circulate. Many began to believe that the Lavrion mines could make every single citizen wealthy forever – if only they were in Greek hands!
In the end, the Lavrion ‘question’ would create hard feelings internationally and cause internal political instability. Giovanni Serpieri was the oldest child of Enrico Serpieri. Like his father, he was a metallurgical engineer. The family had extensive mining interests in Italy. Giovanni married Clemence Leboyl and, through this marriage, gained a connection with the Banking House of Roux Frassinet and Company.
Giovanni began his career in Marseilles but came to Athens because the possibilities of mining in Lavrion had been brought to his attention. In 1864 he founded the company Roux - Serpieri - Fressynet in order to mine the silver-lead of Lavrion. Lavrion became one of the most important industrial installations in Greece at that time, with multiple facilities including blast furnaces, metal works, chemistry laboratories, and various storerooms. In 1867, there were 1,200 employees.
This concession included the right to mine the tailings from the ancient mines, or so Serpieri believed. The issue arose when the government, pressed by opposition members of parliament, questioned the legality of the extraction of ore from the ancient slag heaps which lay on the surface. In 1870 parliament passed a law forbidding Serpieri from exploiting this ore until a final decision could be made. Serpieri refused to stop mining the slag and requested the arbitration of the Italian and the French governments. They took the company’s side and asked for damages. All the while, the relationship between Greece and France and Greece and the rest of Europe deteriorated. The French Government took measures: a) They left the chair of the French Ambassador to Greece empty. b) They passed a new law affecting shipping. New taxes were levied on goods carried by foreign flagged ships coming from a third port and then on to France. These new taxes detrimentally affected Greek ships picking up grain in Russia, Romania and Egypt, and then transporting it on to France.
At the kings’ request, AndreasSyngros, as representative of the Bank of Constantinople, reached an agreement with Serpieri in February of 1873. Negotiations ended in an agreement in which the company came into Greek hands and was renamed The Lavrion Metallurgical Company. Operated as a government company it went through troubles causing governments to fail.The rumors about the mines and the fact that the bank was supporting the new company led thousands of Greeks to buy shares and the rush to buy caused the price to skyrocket. As time passed and expectations proved unfounded, the price of the stock plummeted. In February 1874, the Prime Minister was forced to resign because he was blamed for the fiasco.
Serpieri was not left empty handed; he formed another joint French-Hellenic company named “Mines of Kamariza”. The Hellenic company did well, even building a railway from the center of Athens to Lavrion after 1885. Serpieri remained in Greece, remained wealthy, and built an impressive mansion that still exists on Panepistimiou Street in the center of Athens.