The legal battle over the true ownership of an exquisite pink diamond valued at $40 million is headed to trial after an appellate court in New York delivered a ruling in favor of the descendants of an Italian politician who are trying to prove that the stone is rightfully theirs.
The diamond, named the Princie, is 34.65 carats — about the size of a Cerignola olive. It was sold to a member of the Qatari royal family in 2013 at a jewelry auction at Christie’s, the auction house. A lawsuit filed by an Italian family claims that Christie’s sold the diamond despite accusations that it had been stolen.
At issue is whether the widow of the Italian politician had a legitimate claim of ownership over the diamond and that her son then had the right to sell it.
The trial over the Princie was supposed to begin last fall — but the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division agreed to put the case on hold while it heard an appeal filed by the defendants, which include Christie’s.
Part of the appeal asked the court to reverse a lower court’s finding that the diamond was purchased by Senator Renato Angiolillo, a once-powerful politician in Rome whose son and grandchildren are the plaintiffs in the case. In a ruling on Thursday, the appeals court refused to do so, rejecting the defendants’ argument that there was lack of proof of Mr. Angiolillo’s purchase.
Scott Balber, a lawyer representing the Angiolillos, said that they look forward to proceeding with the trial in the New York State Supreme Court “as soon as practicable.” The coronavirus pandemic has been a significant roadblock for jury trials over the past few months.
Mr. Angiolillo’s descendants said that he bought the Princie at Van Cleef & Arpels in 1960, the same year that he married his second wife, Maria Girani Angiolillo. Mr. Angiolillo, a wealthy man who owned one of Italy’s largest newspapers, Il Tempo, died in 1973; the plaintiffs assert that under Italian law at the time, all of his possessions should have gone to his children, not his spouse, unless they were explicitly left to her. (Mr. Angiolillo’s will gave his wife their home in Rome, as well as its lavish furnishings, but it did not mention anything else.)
But the auction house and its co-defendants counter that the diamond, set in a ring, was a gift to Ms. Angiolillo and was owned by her, not her husband, when he died.
Mr. Angiolillo’s descendants say that their stepbrother absconded with the diamond after his mother died in 2009, but the stepbrother, Marco Milella, has insisted that he inherited the stone from his mother and that it was his to sell, according to court records.
Mr. Milella sold the diamond for nearly $20 million to a gems dealer in Switzerland named David Gol, who is a defendant in the case. Mr. Gol has said that he believes Mr. Milella had a clear title to the Princie and worked to sell it as part of the 2013 auction.
In establishing the deceased Italian senator’s purchase of the diamond, the appeals court relies on documents associated with Christie’s own investigation into the provenance of the diamond. The court’s order said that documents generated in the course of the investigation include “unequivocal statements by Christie’s outside counsel” that the senator had indeed purchased the diamond.
In allowing the case to continue, the appeals court also resolved another legal dispute over which law should be applied: New York’s or Switzerland’s. The auction house has argued that its client purchased the gem in Switzerland, where property can be acquired legally, despite accusations of theft, if a good faith purchaser pays the full value of the item. The plaintiffs countered that the sale had been administered in New York by a New York auction house, and so Christie’s could not pick and choose which law to apply.
In another victory for the plaintiffs, the appeals court sided with the lower court in ruling that New York law should be applied. In its decision, the court cited the “strong New York contacts” in the case and the state’s “overwhelming interest in protecting the integrity of its market.”
A spokeswoman for the auction house said, “While Christie’s is disappointed by the appellate court’s decision, we continue to believe that the evidence at trial will demonstrate that Christie’s consignor had the right to sells the diamond at issue” — Mr. Gol was the consignor — “and that Christie’s acted in complete good faith in doing so in April 2013.”
The spokeswoman said that key pieces of evidence at trial will include the “actions of the Senator’s widow in asserting her own ownership of the diamond and plaintiffs’ repeated denial to Italian tax authorities that they inherited the diamond.” (A judge in the trial court pointed out that no evidence has been presented to show that Ms. Angiolillo, the wife, or Mr. Milella, her son, paid taxes on it, either.)
A lawyer for Mr. Gol, Emily Reisbaum, said in a statement that there is “no dispute” that Mr. Gol’s company bought the diamond ring in “good faith and for full value” and that they look forward to winning at trial.
Mr. Balber, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said that he saw the appeals court’s decision as a recognition that “it is not permissible for someone to purchase stolen goods in a regime where it’s permitted and then to try to take advantage of the New York markets by selling it here.”