Gene trouble at Villa La Pietra

May 10, 1996

A bequest by Sir Harold Acton to New York University was possibly the biggest gift ever made to an American university. But it has now become the object of a complex legal wrangle between the university, the Acton estate and a woman who claims she is Acton's illegitimate sister and heir.

When Sir Harold, last of the great Anglo-Florentines, died in 1994, aged 89, he left the magnificent Villa La Pietra, on a hill overlooking Florence, to the university. The legacy includes 62 acres of vineyards, olive groves and farmland, five smaller villas, and investments of hundreds of millions of dollars for its upkeep.

Sir Harold, a socialite, aesthete and author, had guests at Villa La Pietra who included members of the British royal family and some of the great names in art and literature (Huxley, Lawrence, Waugh and so on.) He originally tried to leave the villa to the city of Florence on the understanding that everything be kept as it was. But Florence turned down the offer.

Liana Beacci, now in her 70s, claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Arthur Acton, Sir Harold's father, and of Ersilia Beacci, a former governess at La Pietra. She has filed a suit for the exhumation of the remains of Sir Harold and Arthur Acton for a DNA test to establish her claim. This would be a first step towards demands on the Acton inheritance. A first court rejected her suit, an appeal granted her request, and now a third and final verdict is awaited from the supreme court, the Corte di Cassazione.

NYU occupied the villa and its beautiful gardens and outbuildings a few months after Sir Harold's death. It established a satellite campus for groups of students and for a variety of seminars and meetings. "We have never officially announced the value of the legacy," explained NYU's Virgil Renzulli in New York. "We can only say that it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is the largest single legacy ever left to an American university."

According to NYU lawyers in New York and Florence, Liana Beacci's claim would be baseless even if she can prove she is Arthur Acton's illegitimate daughter and Sir Harold's half-sister.

"The Acton wealth came from Sir Harold's mother, Hortense Mitchell, daughter of a very rich, self-made banker from Chicago," explained Andrea Scavetta, NYU's attorney in Florence. "Arthur Acton himself had almost nothing. La Pietra was bought with Mitchell money and remained in the name of Hortense, who in any case died a number of years after Arthur.

"In cases of this type it is usual to apply the laws in force when the birth took place, and to apply the laws of the nation to which the alleged parent belonged at the time. Arthur was a British subject and under British law illegitimate children were not entitled to anything unless specifically mentioned in a will, which Miss Beacci was not."

Italian law, however, gives much greater importance to blood relationships in inheritance disputes. Miss Beacci's lawyers are trying to obtain the DNA test to prove her relationship to Acton and may simply claim that she is sole heir. Italian law sets aside a share of inheritance for close relatives irrespective of any will.

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