That Hurts

In Tussle Over Will, Mistress’s Family Takes a Bite Out of NYU

After a 20-year fight, the family of Harold Acton’s illegitimate half sister has won the rights to 50 percent of the estate the millionaire left to NYU. The question is, will they pay?

New York University was not thunderstruck by the news that Sir Harold Acton had left the school his estate when he died in 1994. This fortune, which included La Pietra, the 14th-century villa where Acton had grown up, four other villas on 57 acres across the Arno from Florence, a hefty art collection and library, plus a $25 million endowment fund, had been promised to them since 1962. But their exultation was public and understandable.

“This is probably the largest gift ever given to an American university and certainly the most magnificent,” L. Jay Oliva, NYU’s then-president, announced. He said that it played into their “plans for being the world’s first truly global university.”

Oliva valued the estate at somewhere between $100 million and $500 million. But that was then.

“Now 20 years have passed,” says Princess Dialta Alliata, Harold Acton’s niece. “And the Metropolitan Museum [has] purchased a little Tuscan painting of the Madonna of the 1400s, very small, like a piece of paper, for $40 million. When Acton purchased Tuscan art it had no market value. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces. Statues, paintings. There is a Veronese. It’s a beautiful Madonna that used to be in the master bedroom. They have placed it in the dining room. It looks terrible there, by the way, with its baroque frame.”

Alliata is not just showing a casual family interest. She and her family have been in litigation with NYU over the Acton estate since his death. I have known Alliata for many years and have written of this saga twice before. This may well be the last time, though, because the affair’s long and halting journey through the Italian legal system looks very much as if it has lumbered close to a conclusion.

Arthur Acton, Harold’s father, was born to Anglo-European grandees, the Actons of Naples. He had an eye for art and went to Paris, planning to paint, but became an art dealer instead, partnering with Stanford White, the architect—as in McKim, Mead & White—who he kept supplied with Old Masters for his clients. In 1903, he married Hortense Mitchell, the daughter of a Chicago banker. They bought La Pietra, where she bore a son, Harold, the following year. Mitchell swiftly came to detest Florence and consoled herself by dressing in traditional Chinese Mandarin clothing, tippling from a pitcher of gin and tonic, and spending an increasing amount of her time in Paris. Ersilia Beacci, a comely 18 year old from Umbria, became Arthur Acton’s mistress.

In 1906, Stanford White was famously murdered by Harry K. Thaw, the lover of his mistress Evelyn Nesbitt (who would be played by Joan Collins in the movie about the incident, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing). Arthur Acton decided to go into business with a neighbor in Florence, Bernard Berenson. One of their collectors was the New York banker, Robert Lehman.

On Feb. 7, 1917, Ersilia bore Arthur a daughter, Liana. She was close to her father, who painted her a birthday portrait every year. She married an architect and their children, Dialta as well as another daughter and two sons, were frequent guests at La Pietra. When Acton died in 1953, no will was found and his estate was inherited by Harold.

Harold Acton attended Oxford University, where he garnered attention for such avant-garde japes as reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from his window on a megaphone, an episode which Evelyn Waugh, an Oxford friend, put in his novel Brideshead Revisited. Acton was a writer and scholar who lived in Beijing through much of the 1930s and delighted in being known as “The Last of the Aesthetes.” Acton spent his later years in La Pietra, where he became a famous host for visiting grandees, including British royals and movie stars.

Acton had no heirs and initially offered to leave his estate to Oxford, but the offer was turned down. So at the suggestion of Robert Lehman, the son of the collector who had worked with his father and the chairman of the advisory committee at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, he made the trove over to NYU instead.

Beacci, who had inherited nothing from her lover, had assumed his son would make provisions for her in his will. But he didn’t. So after his death, she sued. She was strongly supported in this by Alliata, who is married to Vittorio Alliata de Montereale, whose interests include the Fondazione Cini, in Venice, a cultural institution with much greater clout than the Villa Pietra. After Beacci died in 2000, the case plowed ahead, with Alliata’s sister and two brothers joining, and NYU contesting each and every move, including the exhumation of Arthur’s body for DNA tests in 2003. These proved with a 99.95 percent certainty that Liana was Arthur Acton’s daughter.

Things started looking up for Beacci’s family on Jan. 1, 2013, when a modification to Law 276 of Europe’s civil code was passed. This recognized family rights when paternity is established, whether a child was born in or out of wedlock. But the biggest win yet came on Sept. 19, 2014, when five judges on Italy’s supreme court found that the Beaccis were entitled to the protection of this law.

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“The supreme court, five judges, have ruled very clearly and very strongly on Sept. 19 that we can take advantage of the new modified law,” Alliata says briskly. “Which means that we have the right to 50 percent of the inheritance of Arthur Acton, precisely the Acton Collection. This is what they ruled. Now in Florence it’s only a question of technicalities.”

Last time I had looked at the case, it seemed likely to be stuck in the legal system for years to come. John Beckman, the spokesman for NYU, had told me that, based on the advice of their experts, they did not believe that Liana Beacci was Arthur Acton’s daughter. Now that events were moving into the fast lane, I reached out to Beckman again. I was sent this statement in his name.

“NYU is deeply disappointed with the recent court ruling, which invoked a 2012 law that even the procuratore generale, a member of the judiciary representing the Italian State in front of the Court of Cassation, said should not be applied retroactively. After 20 years of litigation, 20 years of restoration and careful stewardship of Villa La Pietra by NYU—including care for the villas; loving restoration of the beautiful gardens; and careful professional preservation of the artworks—and 20 years of investment by NYU to make La Pietra a vibrant center for international education and discourse, we are back at square one. It is hard to see this as any kind of just outcome.”

John Beckmann’s statement continued: “Given that the decision rested—wrongly, in our opinion—on the retroactive application of a law that was not passed till after the deaths of Arthur Acton, Harold Acton, Liana Beacci and after the filing of the lawsuit, we expect to pursue any available remedy in the Italian and European courts.”

Alliata does not appear cowed by this. “They cannot go to the European Court because they have no grounds,” she says. “276 is a European law. When the supreme court rules, no one can appeal.”

So what now?

“NYU dragged it on for 20 years. Now they either settle, which they should have done 20 years ago, or they go in front of the judge. And he will rule that we have to have 50 percent of the value of the Acton art collection,” Alliata said. “It will be very painful for them when the judge rules.”

“The high court has given [NYU] a very clear message, which is that the paternity rights of my mother are legal. And her inheritance rights are legal. The 50 percent. And they must just accept that after 20 years of trying to hush us and badmouth us. What I assume is that we will come to a final peaceful settlement in which we agree on the value of the inheritance. And they agree to pay it,” Alliata says. “In one way or another. Whether it is with the art, whether it is in money, we need to have our rights.”