By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Turkish Cypriot tycoon Asil Nadir, who jumped bail in 1993, was finally convicted in a British court on Wednesday of plundering millions from his old company to buy antiques, race horses and country houses.
Nadir, who transformed the small textile company Polly Peck into one of the top British stocks of the 1980s, returned to Britain in 2010 after 17 years as a fugitive in northern Cyprus.
Once one of Britain's richest men, Nadir hung Turner watercolours in his office and had two English country estates and homes in the wealthy London districts of Mayfair and Hampstead.
He was found guilty of stealing 29 million pounds ($45.7 million) from Polly Peck, a multi-national with interests in everything from fruit packing to electronics. The firm collapsed in 1990 when British officials began a fraud probe.
It was one of Britain's biggest corporate failures, leaving thousands of shareholders and employees out of pocket. Some saw its rapid rise and fall as emblematic of the excesses of the 1980s and a precursor to the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
After Wednesday's verdict, Nadir said goodbye to his wife who stood on tip-toe to reach the dock, the Press Association said. Wearing a dark suit and tie, the 71-year-old was taken from the Old Bailey court to Belmarsh, a high-security London prison often used to house terrorism suspects.
The judge will sentence Nadir on Thursday. The maximum penalty for theft is seven years in jail.
Nadir was arrested in 1990, but slipped out of the country before he could be brought to trial, flying in a private plane to northern Cyprus which has no extradition treaty with Britain. He flew back to London in 2010, vowing to clear his name.
During the seven-month trial, Nadir admitted taking money from Polly Peck, but said he had always balanced the books by paying cash into other accounts.
However, the Old Bailey jury found him guilty of 10 out of 13 theft charges. Prosecutors said some of the money was used to buy antiques, jewels and property. More was spent on bolstering Polly Peck's share price and investing in other companies.
Nadir's wife Nur said he would appeal.
"This unhappy affair is certainly not over yet," she said. "He wants justice for himself and for the tens of thousands of shareholders and employees."
The guilty verdicts are the latest chapter in an extraordinary life story.
Born in 1941 in Cyprus, Nadir began selling newspapers on the streets aged six before moving with his family to London, where they lived together in a single room.
With a mixture of charm, hard work and aggressive deal-making, Nadir turned Polly Peck into a multi-national powerhouse that delighted investors with its rapid growth.
A charismatic figure with a passion for horse racing, Nadir was also a generous donor to Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives, the party now running Britain as part of a coalition.
However, he was never really accepted by the British establishment. He also had enemies in the Greek Cypriot community, who accused him of cashing in on fruit crops produced on land seized after the Turkish invasion of 1974, which had been prompted by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
($1 = 0.6336 British pounds)
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)