When it's time to sell off your life on the way out of town, Ahmed Refaie is ready to buy. A couple of weeks ago, Fausto Giuppani sent an e-mail to Ahmed Fahmi Refaie about some furniture. Giuppani had recently been laid off from his job as a construction executive in Dubai, and he was looking to sell everything he owned before leaving town. And Refaie, one of Abu Dhabi's biggest second-hand furniture dealers, is in the business of buying up people's worldly effects - lock, stock and decorative barrel.
Refaie received the email in his office on a Monday, sitting behind his formidably cluttered desk, which is crammed with laptop computers, flyswatters, measuring tapes and a desk clock frozen at 10:10. Refaie's business, Nefertiti Furniture, boasts 1,000 square metres of showroom and warehouse space. But all that space has become crowded of late. "I used to make displays," Refaie said, motioning at his packed shop floor. "But now I have too much furniture."
"When you leave the country, I buy from you everything," he explained in his deep monotone. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are transient places. And this time of year - when school lets out and the summer heat descends - always spawns a seasonal wave of emigration, which can lead to a glut of second-hand goods on the market. But this year's exodus, spiked by the global recession and the real estate bust, is of a different order. Refaie is not selling much right now. But he's buying more - more cheaply and at better quality - than ever.
Sitting next to an oscillating fan, Refaie clicked on the unread e-mail from Giuppani. A slew of attached photos showed a sumptuous apartment furnished with imported antiques. There were blue velvet Louis Quatorze chairs, burled wood vanities, lavishly framed Botticelli prints and thickly upholstered sofas. Judging from the images, the apartment was huge and bright, with lofty views of water. Refaie's line of work requires good deal of mind-reading, and now he was trying to suss out the Italian's thoughts. "The person selling - sometimes they don't care about the money," he said. "They want to clean everything."
One Englishman recently sold Refaie a villa's worth of electronics and modern designer furniture along with a new car - a black Subaru Legacy with just 3,500 kilometres on it. Refaie paid Dh70,000 for the whole lot. The man had been living in Dubai only for six months before losing his contract. His car still had the dealer's plastic on the seats. The phone rang. It was another seller - an Australian - with whom Refaie had already negotiated once before. A slow-moving, paunched Egyptian in his sixties, Refaie was wearing a spotless olive green T-shirt, brown suspenders and a pair of small, rectangular reading glasses. A thin white beard traced his jawline. He reached for his mobile and held it in front of his mouth on speaker phone.
"So, how much you want?" Refaie said. The seller was terse. "I need 500 for the couch, computer desk and the chair," he said. "And the bookcase?" Refaie said. "The bookcase is worth 3,000. It's handmade. You offer me 100 - that's crazy." Ahmed ended the conversation there: "OK. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." With each slow repetition of the words, he moved the phone further from his mouth. Several days later, Refaie sent one of his colleagues - a fortyish Pakistani man named Adnan Bashir - to appraise several households' worth of furniture in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, including Giuppani's.
The first stop was in Abu Dhabi, at the home of a Korean family. A teenaged daughter translated for her mother. The family was selling a nice but somewhat bland sofa and coffee table set, a lavender set of children's bedroom furniture, a dark wood dining room table and a master bedroom set - all for about Dh8,000. "We're willing to come down on the price," the daughter admitted. Bashir took a few pictures and then called them a few minutes later from the car. "My offer is 2,000 dirhams, ma'am, for the complete furniture," he said cheerfully. The teenager repeated the amount in stunned disbelief. "For everything?" she asked.
At this, Bashir launched into a well-rehearsed argument (as it happens, he trained as a lawyer in Pakistan). "Too many people are going to their countries," he told the teenager. "Nobody's buying. Only selling." Every day, he said, the value of her second-hand furniture is falling. After they hung up, Bashir felt certain: "She will give it to me." From there, he made his way to Dubai. Bashir expounded on his own theories of mind-reading en route. Some people, he said, are "smart": they sell everything in one go, and Nefertiti is willing to pay them slightly more for a lot that hasn't been picked over. But with some holdouts, it is best to wait until the last possible minute to make them an offer. By then, he said, they are willing to accept anything.
At the end of the day, Bashir made his way to Giuppani's luxury apartment building, the Marsa Plaza, in Dubai's Festival City. Bashir met Giuppani by the elevators. He was an elderly Italian dressed in a bright white polo shirt, a white cap and royal blue trousers, as if for a day on the yacht. "I had five bedrooms, two maids, a driver - everything," he explained. "I thought Dubai would last forever. So I shipped in very nice furniture."
But by now his sprawling apartment was mostly empty; Giuppani had managed to sell most of his finer antiques to individuals in Dubai. Only three bedroom sets and a few chairs were left. He was anxious to be rid of these. "When I sell the furniture," he said, "I will leave." "So," Bashir said, "how much you want?" Giuppani refused to answer. "There is no point in asking. If I ask you 50,000, you'll say: 'Sorry, I'll give you 3,000.'" The Italian laughed sourly. "I know you people. I know your business. I know you've got to sell. I know you have to stock it, you have to pay for transport. I've heard all these stories."
Bashir waited for him to finish. "So how much you think?" Giuppani paused. "The cost of this furniture is 8,000, 9,000," he said. "But don't be shy, because I know you. Just tell me how much I can get. Then I'll tell you yes or no. And then your driver can come pick it up. And I will go to the airport." Giuppani said something about wanting to leave on Friday. Soon after that, Bashir said his goodbye and made his exit. Once the Italian was out of earshot, Bashir started to laugh. "Thursday evening!" he said. "I'll give him an offer Thursday evening."
* John Gravois