MANHATTAN (CN) - Heirs of a late Italian general say in court that they are the true owners of a rare pink jewel that Christie's auctioned off for $40 million in 2013.
Measuring at 34.65 karats, the Princie Diamond "is one the rarest, perhaps most famous and illustrious pink diamonds in the world," the complaint against Christie's, filed Friday in Manhattan Supreme Court, states.
It was "mined over 300 years ago from the famous Golconda mines in India and ultimately named after an Indian prince," the action continues.
Renato Angiolillo, an Italian senator who founded and edited the famous newspaper Il Tempo, bought the Princie Diamond from the world-famous jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels in early 1961, just a few months after marrying his second wife, Maria Girani, according to the complaint.
That senator's last surviving son, Amedeo Angiolillo, brought the complaint against Christie's, along with his nephew, Renato Angiolillo Jr., and another brother's three children.
They say Girani took custody, but ownership, of the gem when Angiolillo died in 1973 "because she was quite active and influential in Italian politics and sponsored political, social and business meetings at her home - the villa in Rampa Mignanelli which had become a meeting place for the Italian political and business worlds."
It was this villa, "located at the famous Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy, along with all of its highly valuable furniture," that the senator left to Girani, having bequeathed his collection of gems to his children, according to the complaint.
Angiolillo's heirs allegedly consented to Girani maintaining custody of the gems because they had a good relationship with their stepmother.
The Angiolillos say that when Girani died, without a will, in 2009, her son Marco Oreste Bianchi Milella "was at first evasive and then avoided all contact" from Amedeo.
Milella, who is not a party to the action filed Friday, allegedly insisted that the jewels were not among his mother's possessions.
The Angiolillos say Italian authorities have been investigating Milella's "role in the missing gems" since that time.
Indeed, "pursuant to a search warrant executed in Monte Carlo, on March 28, 2013, the Italian authorities had seized certain gems previously owned by the late Senator Renato Angiolillo in the apartments of Mr. Milella, his girlfriend and" an expert gems dealer who had allegedly bought some gems from Milella, according to the complaint.
The Angiolillos say they advised Christie's about their claim to the Princie Diamond in early April 2013, having just learned the firm was planning to auction it on April 16.
Christie's allegedly noted, however, that Milella had "held himself out as the beneficial owner of the Princie Diamond after the death of his mother, Maria Girani."
It said that its consignor, an anonymous individual who supposedly paid $20 million for the Princie Diamond through a broker, had valid title under Swiss law, according to the complaint.
Though Christie's went ahead with the auction on April 16, 2013, the Angiolillos say that the expert gems dealer, Herve Louis Fontaine, has since come clean about his dealings with Milella "in an apparent attempt to clear himself of criminal liability."
In 2014, Fontaine "admitted to Italian authorities that ... he believed Mr. Milella to be the owner of certain gems previously in the custody of Maria Gariani and, in fact, Mr. Milella had sold him certain gems previously worn by Mr. Milella's mother, Maria Girani," the complaint states.
The Angiolillos say that Christie's claims about Swiss law hold little water since "New York law provides that once there is a 'thief,' ... no one can take good title."
Christie's allegedly took a $3.8 million commission in the April 16 sale of the diamond to an "anonymous purchaser" for $40 million.
All five Angiolillo plaintiffs are residents of Italy. The senator's son Amedeo has a New York residence at 223 E. 61st St., according to the complaint.
In 1973, the year the senator died, he had the diamond insured for a trip Girani was taking to the United States with "certain gems," according to the complaint. That transaction also allegedly insured a pair of 60 carat sapphire earrings, a 40 carat sapphire ring, and another sapphire ring of 44.65 carats.
The Angiolillos say that while Girani continued wearing the jewels from her husband's collection in the years after his death, she confirmed to them often that the Princie Diamond and the other gems "belonged to them by inheritance, and that they would be returned to them after her death."
Milella and Amedeo's relationship used to be "a good one - they had lived in one of Senator Renato Angiolillo's apartments together when they were younger," according to the complaint.
A criminal proceeding over the missing gems is still pending before the Court of Campobasso, Italy, according to the complaint.
Christie's allegedly told the Angiolillos that any interference with its auction would be met with a lawsuit.
The Angiolillos seek punitive damages for conversion, negligence and other claims. They are represented by Edward Kelly with Tiajoloff Kelly.
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