Christie’s at the Center of a Legal Dispute over the sale of the Historic Princie Diamond

Christie’s auction house is at the center of a legal dispute involving the sale of the historic Princie Diamond” a 34.65-carat, pink diamond of Golconda origin, which sold for a staggering US$39.3 million to an anonymous buyer at its New York Magnificent Jewels Sale held on April 16, 2013. The price realized was a new world record for a Golconda diamond sold at an auction as well as a new record for any jewel sold at Christie’s, surpassing the previous record of US$24.3 million set in December 2008 for the sale of the Wittelsbach Diamond.

34.65-carat, fancy intense pink, cushion-cut  Princie Diamond
34.65-carat, fancy intense pink, cushion-cut Princie Diamond

The “Princie Diamond” is believed to have been part of the enormous collection of jewels and jewelry that once belonged to Mir Usman Ali Khan, the VIIth Nizam of Hyderabad, who was forced to abdicate his throne in 1948 following Indian independence. The diamond first came into the open in 1960 when it featured at a Sotheby’s London auction and was purchased by Van Cleef & Arpels for US$128,000. The previously unnamed diamond was christened the “Princie Diamond” by Van Cleef & Arpels in honor of the 14-year old son “Princie” of the Princess of India, Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda, who were special guests of honor at a party organized by the company to celebrate the acquisition of the rare diamond. Van Cleef & Arpels got the diamond mounted as the centerpiece of a pendant to a necklace of baguette-cut diamonds, surrounded by round brilliant-cut white diamonds. The necklace was later sold to an anonymous buyer.

Maharani Sita Devi  of Baroda with her son Princie, in whose honor the diamond was named
Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda with her son Princie, in whose honor the diamond was named

However, it now appears that the anonymous buyer to whom Van Cleef & Arpels sold the necklace incorporating the “Princie Diamond” in 1961 was none other than Senator Renato Angiollilo, Italian journalist, politician and founder of the newspaper Il Tempo who apparently had given the necklace as a “gift” but not an outright gift to his newly wed second wife Maria Girani. After Maria Girani’s death in 2009, her son Marco Bianchi Milella had taken possession of her jewels including the Princie Diamond, which was subsequently entrusted to Christie’s New York for sale in 2013.

His Exalted Highness Sir Mir Usman Ali khan, VIIth and the last Nizam of Hyderabad -  the original owner of the Princie Diamond
His Exalted Highness Sir Mir Usman Ali khan, VIIth and the last Nizam of Hyderabad – the original owner of the Princie Diamond

Upon learning of the impending Christie’s auction in April 2013, featuring the “Princie Diamond” heirs of the late Italian Senator Renato Angiollilo by his first wife, contacted Christie’s through a lawyer and relayed that it was “a great likelihood, almost a certainty” that the diamond was stolen property. However, Christie’s replied it believed that its seller had a valid title to the stone under Swiss law.

Senator Renato Angiollilo who purchased the Princie Diamond Necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels in 1961
Senator Renato Angiollilo who purchased the Princie Diamond Necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels in 1961

The late Senator’s heirs led by his son Amedeo Angiollilo have now filed a law suit against Christie’s in the New York Manhattan supreme court alleging the auction house had sold off the 300-year-old, 34.65-carat Indian diamond to an anonymous buyer on behalf of someone who was not its rightful owner. In other words the suit claims that Christie’s had sold stolen property when it auctioned the Princie Diamond for US$39.3 million in April 2013. Angiollilo’s heir’s claimed that they had notified Christie’s prior to the auction that the diamond had been stolen from them.

Maria Girani Angiollilo in whose custody the Princie Diamond remained until her death in 2009
Maria Girani Angiollilo in whose custody the Princie Diamond remained until her death in 2009

According to the complaint the “Princie Diamond” is one the rarest and perhaps most famous and illustrious pink diamonds in the world, and was given as a gift with a caveat covering it that prevented its sale, like several other jewels given by the late Senator Renato Angiollilo, when he wedded his second wife, Maria Girani. When Angiolillo died in Italy in 1973, his second wife, Maria Girani, received custody but not ownership of several jewels, including the Princie Diamond. Amedeo Angiollilo struck a deal with his step-mother that allowed her to continue wearing the Princie Diamond and other jewels until her death. Maria Girani had a good relationship with her husband’s children and grandchildren, confirming on several occasions that the gems in her possession, including the Princie Diamond, belonged to them by inheritance, and that they would be returned to them after her death.

However, after Maria Girani passed away in 2009 her husband’s heirs came looking for the precious stones, but Girani’s son Marco Bianchi Milella claimed he never saw the diamond among his mother’s possessions. The Angiolillo family went to Italian police and had them open a case to find the missing gems. The Italian police seized from Milella’s home in Monte Carlo other gems of the lot owned by the Angiolillo family but lent to Girani, which included a ruby necklace he had given to his girlfriend, according to the lawsuit.

Commenting on the filing of the law suit, a Christie’s spokesperson said in a statement: “We find the filing to be without merit; this stems from a long-standing and highly contentious dispute among family members who claim to be heirs of a past owner of the diamond. Prior to Christie’s sale of the Princie in 2013, the two main representatives of the family had expressly withdrawn any objection to the sale. They are well aware that the seller of the stone had held full and clear title to the item for several years.”

However, the lawsuit in the New York supreme court claims that, even if Swiss law sanctioned the title transfer, New York law renders it moot because there was involuntary transfer from the Angiolillo family to Milella. The lawsuit argues against Christie’s claim that a ‘valid title’ was provided by a Swiss entity, and states that New York law provides that once there is an involuntary transfer, or if the property is lost in the chain of title, no one can take good title.

Angelillo and his nieces and nephews are suing to recover the diamond, or the market value of the diamond along with damages. Angelillo further claims to have an insurance certificate proving his claim to the ownership of the diamond.

Senator Renato Angiollilo had been an influential figure in Italian politics and his house in Rome “Villino Giulia” had been a frequent meeting place of celebrities, leading political figures and journalists, earning the nickname “Fourth Chamber.” Among the politicians who were frequent guests of his house were Arnaldo Forlani , Giulio Andreotti , Amyntor Fanfani , Bettino Craxi , Giorgio Almirante , Massimo D’Alema , Walter Veltroni , Gianfranco Fini , Gianni Letta , Silvio Berlusconi , Umberto Bossi and Giulio Tremonti. After Senator Renato Angiollilo’s death in 1973, his wife Maria Girani Angiollilo continued with the tradition of entertaining political figures and celibrities at “Villino Giulia” taking an active part in Italian politics, and sponsoring political, social and business meetings at her home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *