Paul Sevoian sat in a gilt chair, surrounded on his trip to Bucharest by the palatial elegance once reserved for Romanian royalty.
But the Somis resident had little inclination to look around.
His gaze was riveted by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who, with eyes ablaze, continued after more than two hours to rail against the United States.
"When I met him," Sevoian recalled, "I realized this guy was certifiably nuts."
Sevoian relived his meeting with Ceausescu this week when news of the tyrant's assassination spread throughout the world.
Four years ago, Ceausescu invited Sevoian and 30 other American businessmen to spend a week in Romania in an attempt to bolster the country's trade relations with the United States.
The culmination of the trip was a special banquet with Ceausescu, where servants stood behind each guest's chair to replenish empty crystal goblets with four types of premium wines. The six-course meal was preceded by an introduction to Ceausescu and by Ceausescu's address.
But seeing Ceausescu in action repulsed rather than enticed Sevoian, who has run an international antique business out of Ventura and London for 17 years.
Upon first sighting the dictator, Sevoian said he was struck that Ceausescu, who was hailed at one time by Romanians as "Our Lay God," was very short and had a weak handshake.
The fierce leader's personality emerged, though, when he responded to a 10-minute address given by the American ambassador, Sevoian said.
The ambassador had praised Romania, but suggested that the country should rectify widespread human rights abuses in order to retain its "most-favored nation" status, with which the United States allowed the Ceausescu regime a range of tariffs and interest-payment concessions.
Ceausescu's subsequent diatribe "almost made me ill," Sevoian said.
When they shook hands after the speech, Ceausescu's eyes were blazing and he fiercely gripped Sevoian's hand, Sevoian said.
"He was a different man," Sevoian said. "He was like a fiery tyrant."
Ceausescu, who wielded absolute power over 23 million Romanians for 24 years, was tried, convicted and executed Monday by leaders of an 11-day-old popular uprising.
They charged the dictator with crimes against the country, including the killing of 60,000 people during his reign and the destruction of the national economy.
Sevoian became involved with Ceausescu's regime when a small delegation of Romanian dignitaries visiting Southern California contacted him because they were anxious to export antique reproductions.
The Romanians hinted at large investment deals and invited Sevoian and a friend to visit Romania with a group of other U.S. businessmen.
Sevoian said he was not anxious to go to Romania, having heard horror stories about the country.
His unease grew when he entered Romania.
He said he believes that agents -- hiding behind dark glasses and trench coats -- trailed him from almost the moment he arrived.
Minefields and armed guards surrounded the airport when he took a side trip to visit furniture factories near the Russian border. Managers prohibited him from entering the factories once he was there.
He said everyone in Romania seemed frightened, including members of his delegation.
"It's a frightening experience to go to Romania," Sevoian said. "Everyone there is treated like the enemy."
Afraid that their hotel room was bugged, Sevoian and his friends stepped onto their balcony before discussing their impressions of the oppression and bleakness that seemed to make up life for Romanian citizens.
Religion had been prohibited to the point that a series of Bibles ordered by a monastery without special government permits had been recycled into toilet paper.
Poor people waited in endless lines to get their rations of chicken's feet, Sevoian said.
It was against the law to use light bulbs above 4 watts.
In the country, the favored mode of transportation was a horse and buggy.
Unable to obtain antifreeze, residents of Bucharest emptied the water out of their cars every night and refilled their radiators in the morning.
When Sevoian offered to buy a gift for the dignitaries who showed him around, they did not ask for liquor or cigars. They desperately wanted motor oil, hard to come by for Romanian residents.
Even in the hotel where the Americans were placed, Sevoian said he dined on meat scraps and stale bread.
The feast served by Ceausescu, replete with caviar and filet mignon, was simply a show, he said.
But despite his feelings about the leader, Sevoian continued to correspond with the dignitaries he had met and helped them contact people about retaining their "most-favored nation" status. The U.S. withdrew the status in 1987.
Now, Sevoian said, he is anxious to get in touch with the men he met in Romania. So far, attempts to reach them have failed.
He is interested, he said, in returning to the new Romania.