A Family Affair: New York University and the Acton Saga

At stake are the university’s Florentine villa and Old Master paintings

Villa La Pietra.
Villa La Pietra.

The opening is a knockout, no question.  It’s a sweltering June morning in 2003, and Dialta Alliata, just 50 and exuberantly posh in the high Italian manner, and her two sisters are walking toward the Cimitero degli Allori, the venerable resting place of the British colony in Florence, when five blue sedans hurtle past, raising dust. Dark suits wait among the graves. “I pick out a trustee of Harold Acton standing with an attorney for New York University,” Ms. Alliata writes in her newly published memoir, My Mother. My Father and His Wife Hortense: The True Story of Villa La Pietra. “Although no one looks relaxed, it is possible that the trustee is the unhappiest member of the gathering. He has tried for almost a decade to prevent what is about to take place, but he has lost,” she writes in the memoir.

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The trustee orders the workmen to start. “Paparazzi and other journalists appear from behind nearby bushes and graves like a bunch of ghosts,” Ms. Alliata writes. “The NYU contingent is obviously furious.” The hacks are chucked out. The coffin of the sisters’ grandfather is dug up. Arthur Acton is dressed in tails. Specialists remove segments of his sternum, ribs, some teeth.

The DNA test that follows is part of a fight over the bequest that Harold Acton, a Brit, proud to be known as the Last of the Aesthetes and a partial model for a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, left to NYU when he died in 1994. His estate included 57 acres of Florentine property, four villas and 5,000 works of art, including pieces from the workshops of Donatello, Ghiberti and Della Robbia. “This is probably the largest gift ever given to an American university and certainly the most magnificent,” L. Jay Oliva, NYU’s president, announced at the time.

A month later, Liana Beacci, Harold Acton’s illegitimate half-sister, the daughter of Arthur’s Florentine secretary, Ersilia, sued for a half-share of that estate.

On that graveyard trip in 2003. I might easily have been one of those spectral journos appearing from behind the gravestones—a form of address appropriate to a narrative that entwines blood and money as ripely as a 19th-century novel—because I have known Dialta Lensi Orlandi (her family name) for lots of years and had written about the NYU case before the disinterment. Indeed, one of those articles, written for Tatler, bobs up as an appendix to Ms. Alliata’s memoir.

The 2003 DNA test proved the near-certainty of Liana Beacci’s kinship with Arthur Acton. Liana had died in 2000 at 83, and Dialta, now Dialta Alliata di Montereale, and a princess, living in Honolulu, was leading the charge. Her husband, Vittorio di Montereale, is well-to-do, and Ms. Alliata was insistent, as she had been from the beginning, that the case was to do with honor, not money, that her grandfather had promised her mother that her uncle, who seemed highly unlikely to have an heir, would take care of her interests. The DNA results had not been presented in high court. Things were apparently looking pretty good for the Beacci heirs.

Still, John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, was unflinching. “Our overall position is that it is a cultural resource—for New York, for Italy and for the world,” he said of La Pietra at the time. This is also the usually unspoken position of institutions fighting off claims for Holocaust restitution—that this artwork now belongs to the culture at large and should not be returned to private hands with unknowable intentions.

Mr. Beckman added, “We do not believe, based on the findings of our expert, that Liana Beacci was in fact the daughter of Arthur Acton”—the reliability of such long-buried DNA being a question.

Mr. Beckman told me at the time that there was something “indecent” about the family of an “illicit relationship” trying “to split up an art collection or an estate that is now used as a cultural and an educational resource.” He spoke of  “the Beacci family’s monetary desires.”

I noted that Dialta Alliata said it was not about the money.

“My response is that whenever somebody says it’s not about the money it’s always about the money,” he said.

In 2005, a higher court tossed the case out, on the grounds you can only sue an heir.

“They said you cannot go after the heirs of heirs,” Ms. Alliata told me two weeks ago. “And who knows how many other steps? Because then you would mess up families, you would mess up situations after generations. So the higher court gives this ruling that you cannot go beyond the first step of heirs.” The precedent had created a conflict, though, both within Italian law and with European protocols. “Rights of paternity are inalienable,” Ms. Alliata said. “There is no statute of limitations on them. They go on forever.”

So the conflict was erased by a sentence added to the law last Dec. 10.

“Just one simple sentence,” Ms. Alliata said. “The sentence says: If the heirs are not there, who do you go after? You can act legally against a figure that is called a special curator, selected by a judge. So the action that we will take is not aimed any more at NYU or the British Institute. We go against this curatore speziale”—a curator who will be representing the interests of NYU.

So it’s back to battle stations. But just when?

“We are ready,” she said. “We are going to file it now. And we are going to request to expedite the procedure.”

The family that believes they have a claim on Villa La PIetra.
The family that believes they have a claim on Villa La PIetra.

Expediting is not, of course, necessarily expeditious in Italy, so the story continues as it began, which is to say more colorfully than fiction. And illegitimacy has been a narrative thread from the get-go. Arthur Acton was one of the Actons of Naples, a historically consequential Anglo-Italian family, his father Roger having been one of the last Actons to leave Naples after the collapse of the Bourbons. Arthur, who was born on the wrong side of the blanket but well-educated, grew up loving art. He thought of becoming a portrait painter, so his father sent him to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

There, Acton struck up a friendship with Stanford White, the architect, 20 years his senior. They resolved to work together, and Acton moved to Florence in 1894. Soon, he was providing White with Old Masters and architectural elements for his clients, rather as Bernard Berenson, the Florence-based American, would shortly be vacuuming up Renaissance art for Joseph Duveen.

In 1903, Acton married Hortense Mitchell, a Chicago heiress he met while designing Italianate features for her father’s bank. Acton was with Stanford White when the architect, a seasoned debauchee, was shot dead in 1906 by Harry Thaw, the jealous lover of one of his string of mistresses. But by then, Acton had other clients. He and Hortense bought La Pietra the following year—with her money.

They had two sons, Harold and William, but Hortense Mitchell grew to loathe Florence. She drank heavily and spent most of her time in Paris. Enter Ersillia Beacci, a beautiful 18-year-old from Umbria, secretary to a local doctor.

Arthur Acton’s courtship proceeded well. In her new memoir, Ms. Alliata quotes from her grandmother’s diary: “He found my hardened nipples, and a fire leapt up inside me.” Well, that will be quite enough of that. Liana was born on Feb. 7, 1917. Arthur Acton bought Ersillia a small palazzo. He was now finding art for both Berenson and New York banker Robert Lehman—that would be the NYU connection. La Pietra was filling up with art and rare books. Hortense spent her occasional visits there refueling from a pitcher of gin and tonic.

A Family Affair: New York University and the Acton Saga