By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, September 2022
So it’s over. After battling her way for 27 years through the Italian legal system Princess Dialta Alliata di Montereale has won the rights to half of the billion dollar collection of 6,000 artworks put together by her grandfather, Arthur Acton. This lush trove had been left by Arthur’s son, Sir Harold Acton upon his death in 1994 to New York University, the president of which would declare that it was the most substantial such bequest in college history anywhere, ever. Harold Acton was though thereby sidelining Ersilia Beacci, his father’s mistress of over sixty years, and her daughter, Liana. This, although he had promised to take care of them. Ersilia died the year after Arthur. At Dialta’s insistence her mother then sued.
Back story. Arthur Acton began renting Villa La Pietra, a 67 acre estate outside Florence, in 1895 after graduating from the Ecole de Beaux Arts. That was where he met Stanford White, a leading architect in Gilded Age New York, who was lecturing. Acton, who was already collecting when you could pick up a Madonna by a known master for next to nothing, became his agent. “He built the collection during the difficult period that was AFTER the unification of Italy,” Francesco Buranelli, President of the Permanent Commission for the Protection of Historical and Artistic Monuments of the Vatican in the world, told me. “An entire country had to be built on the ashes of the pre-unification states. There were cultural and heritage protection problems. Arthur Acton already in the late 19th century began to buy Tuscan masterpieces. Over time it grew in importance, becoming the most representative example of Florentine collecting of those years.”
Stanford White was best known for Washington Square Arch though also in a buzzy Manhattan circle for his feral pursuit of under-age women. Projects to which Acton contributed art included Hearst Castle in Northern California, the Villa Vizcaya in Miami and examples of the paintings, ceramics and furniture he shipped fill several rooms in the Robert Lehman Wing of the New York Met. The colab had a dark end. Acton was at the performance on the roof garden of Madison Square Theater in 1906 when White was shot dead by the billionaire, Harry K. Thaw for sexual abuse of his juvenile wife, Evelyn Nesbit.
Arthur Acton’s then eight year relationship with Beacci in La Pietra was not interrupted by his marriage in 1903 to Hortense Mitchell, daughter of a wealthy Chicago banking family, who didn’t enjoy the lifestyle there, but hung on, tippling gin. Harold described his father hosting a circle of connoisseurs. I remember how the writers sniffed and snorted at one another when they happened to collide in our drawing room: one retired in high dudgeon upon spotting a detested rival, another stood by to sneer and mutter sarcasms, he wrote.
Arthur died in 1953. His will was not found, oddly, for such a well-documented individual, Alliata observes. Harold inherited La Villa Pietra, where he too became a host, but preferring to host Princess Margaret, Pablo Picasso, Evelyn Waugh to contentious scholars and shunning his blood half-sister and niece. He died in 1994. So to the lawsuit.
Liana died in 2000. The Beacci lawyers proposed DNA tests of Arthur’s and Liana’s corpses. NYU fought this for years, but lost. Dialta Alliata had taken over the case with tigerish vigor. In her book, My Mother, My Father and His Wife Hortense, she describes making her way in June 2003 to a Florentine cemetery and seeing reporters bobbing up behind gravestones and being chucked out as her grandfather was disinterred in a tuxedo. Body parts tested included teeth and ribs. The press reported that the DNA tests had been positive for the Beaccis but NYU fought against their use, arguing that they couldn’t be trusted on a long buried body.
How had that strategy worked I asked Andrea Cecchetti, lead Alliata lawyer, along with Fulvio Ferlito. “It caused a long duration of the controversy until the Supreme Court eliminated this obstacle,” he said. ‘The Court of Florence declared the judicial paternity in 2019”.
The NYU team threw another uppercut in 2005. A law in Italy’s Civil code stated that legal action could be taken against an heir, but not against the heirs of an heir, understandably in a country of tangled dynasties. NYU was the heir of the heir so the action was tossed out by the Court of Florence. In 2012 though a new law declared that a missing heir could be replaced by a court-appointed special curator. Alliata was back in business. ‘Ten years were lost for that quibble,” Cecchetti observes.
NYU then adopted a different strategy, claiming that Hortense Mitchell had financed the collecting. Alliata observes that ArthurActon had kept books, recording the provenance of every piece, financial details included. The collection moreover wasn’t mentioned in Mitchell’s will, nor that she was leaving it to Harold. The judge ruled that the collection should be appraised for value and that Liana’ heirs should get half.
Dialta Alliata’s reaction has been mixed. “We got fifty percent,” she says. “If I wanted to go on another three or four years I could get the hundred.” This because the NYU team had ignored a legal process which translates as The Recognition of The Entity. “This is obligatory if you inherit in Italy and needs to be done within 12 months of inheriting,” she says. “If you don’t, you have rights to nothing.”
The reaction of John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, has not been mixed at all. “NYU has lovingly cared for La Pietra, restored its exceptional gardens, carefully preserved the artwork there, and successfully transformed it (in accord with Harold and Hortense Acton’s wishes) into a vibrant center for international education and discourse” he wrote me. “ Adding “NYU expects ultimately to prevail in court.” During a further action in a Florence court on September 8, NYU again pressed the argument that the collection had been financed by Hortense Mitchell. So was her property. This was again resoundingly rejected. Dialta Alliata had prevailed not NYU, whose position on La Pietra, she notes, suggests that the state or a powerful institution can ignore the hereditary principle which has been central to our life on earth since way before history began to be written down. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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