Mystery of the Callas millions resurfaces as jewels are put up for auction

James Sherwood
Tuesday 26 October 2004 00:00 BST

When Maria Callas died intestate 27 years ago, the battle for her $8m (£4.5m) fortune was as turbulent as her life, pitting her former husband against her estranged mother.

The drama continued yesterday when an anonymous vendor displayed 11 pieces from Callas's famed collection of gems at Sotheby's in London. The jewels' public appearance - thought to be their first since the singer died in 1977 - and Sotheby's insistence that the buyer could not be identified, reignited speculation into who controls her millions.

Theories range from her former husband's nurse, who inherited his fortune when he died, to the descendants of a Greek friend of Callas.

Sotheby's senior jewellery specialist, Alexandra Rhodes, said yesterday that the jewels were "bequeathed to a member of her circle after her death 27 years ago".

The jewels, bought by Callas's first husband and manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, include an 11.7 carat marquise-cut diamond ring estimated to fetch £68,000-£100,000, a ruby and diamond Van Cleef & Arpels brooch (£28,000-£45,000) and a suite of emerald and diamond jewels. A gold Van Cleef evening bag still has Callas's tortoise-shell comb and mirror inside.

Douglas Walker, Sotheby's jewellery expert in Geneva, where the collection is to be sold next month, said: "The Duchess of Windsor's jewels reached seven times their estimate, and Callas is an equally powerful icon. I hope everything's going to go for a very high price. We think they haven't seen the light of day since 1977. These jewels were worn a lot by Callas and yet they are in perfect condition."

Callas left her $8m estate to her estranged mother, Evangelina, and her sister Jackie by default. But, before they could collect, Meneghini appeared with a will signed in 1954 leaving everything to him.

The French authorities sealed off her apartment until the family and Mr Meneghini settled on a 50/50 split out of court.

Vasso Devetzi, a Greek friend of the singer who oversaw Callas's abrupt cremation, persuaded Jackie and Evangelina to sign over to her their power of attorney and more than $1m to establish the Maria Callas Foundation. Though Devetzi died of a heart attack in 1987, some, including the film director Franco Zeffirelli, believe that her family now owns the jewels, a claim said by Ms Rhodes at Sotheby's to be "presumptuous".

Mr Zeffirelli denounced the sale at the weekend and accused the vendors of exploiting her fortune. "I have received an invitation [to the sale] but I have no intention of going," he said. "I don't want to smell the jackals involved in this."

It is believed that jewellery given to Callas by Meneghini reverted to him, while gems given to her during her time with the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis went to her mother and sister.

The jewels to be sold by Sotheby's are gifts from Meneghini, who died in 1981, apparently leaving his fortune to his maid, a Signora Roverselli, triggering speculation that she is the vendor.

Callas predicted the tug-of-war for her estate. In 1970 she asked a friend, Nadia Stancioff: "Can you imagine what my funeral will be? Hundreds of people pushing and shoving, all saying they loved me and we were best of friends. How many people will be there who really love me? Four? Five?"

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