Monday, 30 April 2012

We're on the move...


Thank you for your support

In the 10 months since launch and with over 160,000 unique views, I would personally like to thank each and everyone of you for the interest you’ve shown in Da Steeps Speaks.



Never did I imagine that a blog I started as a response to my dealings with some people who especially dislike me would end up becoming something so positive. The caravan has long moved on from that silly saga and I am delighted to announce today that I will shortly be launching an online magazine named The Steeple TIMES.

A talented team is currently working to finalise the new site and we very much hope that you will soon be enjoying what we’ve created. Our intention is to continuing sharing the “wit and wisdom” that began here as we also expand into pastures new.

Please look back in the next few days for further updates and in the meantime, thank you one and all.

Matthew Steeples

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Pips to the Point


The sale of Tapeka Point, a motor launch once used by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Pippa Middleton

It’s been an interesting week for Miss Pippa Middleton. First she got herself involved in a furore surrounding a party in Paris and a gun wielding Audi driver named Romain Rabillard.

Pippa Middleton (bottom left) on the cover of the 30th April edition of Time magazine alongside others on their list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” Amongst them are Rhianna, Hilary Clinton, Adele, Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett

Though Time then listed her as one of the world’s most influential, she was also branded a “national embarrassment” by The Independent’s Terence Blacker. Yesterday, my piece in response to the inaccuracies surrounding that particular article attracted both vitriol and adoration in equal measure. I was truly surprised by what feeling this young lady brings out in people from all manner of backgrounds.

Tapeka Point

This morning, one of my favourite columnists, Richard Eden of The Telegraph’s “Mandrake,” printed yet another story about the Middleton clan. His column detailed that a Bournemouth based auctioneer was selling a motor launch that was used by the family on a holiday with Prince William in 2006. It stated that the seller believed a premium could be achieved because of the royal effect.

The 40ft Windy Borer, named Tapeka Point and registered in Poole, was built in 2001 and accommodates 6 in 3 double cabins. Designed by Hans J. Johnsen and built by Widy Boats AS, auctioneer John Elsmore, in a separate article in the Bournemouth Daily Echo, is quoted as believing the Pippa effect will also further boost the £120,000 starting price.

Prince William with Carole, James and Pippa Middleton onboard Tapeka Point, hull number WIN40052E101, in Ibiza in 2006 and Prince William and Kate Middleton at the stern of the boat

After the week Miss Middleton has had, she probably wishes she were back on this boat and sailing off into the sunset. Perhaps she should put in a bid.


For more information on Tapeka Point and to bid, contact  John Elsmore of Asset Bidder on +44 (0) 845 078 0371. Full details can be found at: http://www.assetbidder.com/lots/windy-coast-buster

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A harbour of drama


A review of the Wyndham Grand London at Chelsea Harbour

Yesterday’s Evening Standard’s revealed that Scotland Yard is selling a 4-bedroom penthouse “close to Chelsea Harbour” that was bought for £985,000 in 2005. Occupied by Sir Ian Blair and Sir Paul Stephenson respectively in their roles as Met commissioners, a price of nearly £2,000,000 will be sought. With the kind of activities that have gone on in this Thames-side development in recent years, it’s no wonder that they placed the chief of police in this location.

Chelsea Harbour viewed from the terrace of the Wyndham Grand London

Chelsea Harbour is a former coal wharf that was redeveloped in the 1980s in a style that was said to emulate the “glamour of Monaco.” Built by P&O, the design has dated badly and though improvements have been made recently to transport links to the site, it still seems a little isolated in it’s position.

Several friends own apartments in the development but the most famous residents are said to have, at various times, included Sir Michael and Shakira Caine, Robbie Williams and Charlie and Rebekah Brooks. It was here recently that a laptop, phone and papers belonging to Mr Brooks were discovered in an underground car park and some years ago, during his participation in a television series about homelessness, it was here also that Lord Brocket sought refuge after having had enough of the reality of the experience.

Being just 0.75 miles from Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge stadium, Chelsea Harbour is also popular with footballers and their WAGs. After their breakup, Frank Lampard purchased a 6-bedroom townhouse for his ex, Elen Rives, and their children for £2,800,000 in one of the development’s crescents in 2009.

The Conrad Hotel, the original name of the hotel at Chelsea Harbour, was said to be the scene of a night of passion between Katie Price and Gareth Gates in 2002. Afterwards Gates is said to have: “fired off a legal letter to Jordan to try to make her keep her mouth shut about their alleged romance.” Miss Price, in the time since, has married both Peter Andre and Alex Reid and is now in an on-off relationship with a male model named Leandro Penna. Gareth Gates has married a dancer and somewhat faded into obscurity.

The hotel equally attracted media attention in 2007 when a cocaine dealer nicknamed “The Milkman,” Brian Wright, was sentenced to life in jail. Wright, whose wealth from drug deals totaled some £100,000,000, is said to have:

… Made the Conrad Hotel, which adjoined the Chelsea harbour complex where he rented a flat, his "office" and testified that if anyone needed him they knew to find him there.”

Wyndham Grand London hotel at Chelsea Harbour

Chelsea Harbour’s hotel was subsequently renamed the Wyndham Grand London in 2007 following a change in management. Consisting of 154 suites and 4 penthouses, the building is currently for sale on a 100 lease through Colliers International at a price of £80,000,000. The sale is subject to the ongoing management agreement to Wyndham Group International.

Actor Lyndon Ogbourne

I dined at the Chelsea Riverside Brasserie, the Wyndham Grand’s restaurant, with the former Emmerdale actor Lyndon Ogbourne just before Christmas.

As Ogbourne updated me on his progress and signing with agents Curtis Brown, we enjoyed an outlook across the harbour’s marina. The vast space itself is a little corporate in design and the limited clientele seemed to mainly consist of estate agents and their clients. The manager informed me that they are generally much busier in the summer and I’m sure if the room were a little more buzzy, it would have been much more appealing.

The Chelsea Riverside Brasserie's restaurant and bar areas

The food itself was perfectly executed. Though not in the league of the restaurants of other 5-star hotels, the informal menu provided ample choices and a selection of simple classics. A grill includes a 10 oz 28-day aged sirloin steak priced at £30 and an 8 oz rib-eye at £25.

Mr Ogbourne opted to start with grilled octopus with puy lentil ragout, Spanish chorizo and rocket cress. The dish was colourful and hearty. My honey roasted salad of autumn vegetables was equally substantial and included parsnip, beetroot, carrots, fennel seeds and Brie de Meaux. It was the perfect choice for a winter’s day.

As a main, I followed with a beef bourguignon that was flavoursome and deliciously tender. Mr Ogbourne equally very much enjoyed the organic salmon fillet with grilled vegetables that he chose and we could find no fault with either dish.

To conclude, I opted for a quince and cherry trifle topped with blackberries and whipped Catalan cream. The health conscious actor decided to pass but this pudding was indeed most delicious.

Suitably for the WAGs, the Chelsea Riverside Brasserie’s wine list includes Perrier-Jouët, Belle Epoque 2002 at £180 a bottle alongside Krug at £210 and Dom Pérignon Rosé at £365. A 2009 house Pinot Grigio from Trentino at £24 a bottle was, however, a perfectly ample and reasonably priced choice to accompany our meal.

Chelsea Harbour itself may be a scene of many a drama but the Chelsea Riverside Brasserie is a restaurant serving good food that truly just needs a little more liveliness.

Wyndham Grand London, Chelsea Harbour, London, SW10 0XG. Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7823 3000. For more information, go to: http://www.wyndhamgrandlondon.co.uk and for details on the Chelsea Riverside Brasserie restaurant view: http://www.chelseariversidebrasserie.co.uk

Follow the Wyndham Grand London on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/wyndhamgrand and the Chelsea Riverside Brasserie at: http://www.twitter.com/riverbrasserie

For more information about the sale of the Wyndham Grand London, contact Colin Hall of Colliers International on +44 (0) 20 7344 6627 or email him at: colin.hall@colliers.com

For more information about Lyndon Ogbourne and to watch his showreel, go to: http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/lyndon-ogbourne//works. Follow him on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/lyndonogbourne

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Coca-Cola and cars

The sale of an Avanti coupé that belonged to designer of the Coca-Cola bottle and the Greyhound Bus

In this morning’s Mail Online there was a piece about how Bonhams are to sell a 1958 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I two-seat drophead coupé with a guide price of £1,000,000 at a forthcoming auction in Monaco. As it looked quite so spectacular, I decided to look up what else was on offer.

Immediately, on viewing the Bonhams website, I was drawn to an article about a car named an Avanti that also happened to have been previously owned by its own designer, Raymond Loewy. It was a vehicle I had not heard of and nor did I have prior knowledge of Loewy himself. I was very glad I decided to look into this intriguing man in further depth as what I found was fascinating.

Raymond Loewy (1893 – 1986)

Raymond Loewy, known as “The Father of Streamlining,” it transpires, was a man who was responsible for the design of many brands, vehicles, liveries and logos in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Amongst them were Air Force One’s distinctive blue, white and chrome livery; steam and electric locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad; logos for the Shell Oil Company, Greyhound, Nabisco and Exxon; the Electrolux L300 refrigerator; Lucky Strike’s white cigarette packaging in 1942 and the interior of the first Boeing 307 Stratoliner for Howard Hughes.

The redesign of the Coca-Cola bottle in the 1950s, however, marked the milestone of his career. Loewy, who some falsely attribute with the original design, eliminated Coca-Cola’s embossing and added the vivid white Coke/Coca-Cola lettering. He oversaw the inception of larger bottles for the range and in 1960 also produced the design for the first Coke steel can.

Raymond Loewy’s Coca-Cola bottle

Another of Loewy’s great successes was the design of the GMC PD-4501 Scenicruiser which was manufactured exclusively for Greyhound Lines. This 43-seat two-level coach was said to be “symbolic of the American way of life” in the 1950s and 1960s.

A 40ft Greyhound Lines PD-4501 Scenicruiser designed by Raymond Loewy. Introduced in July 1954, 1001 were made between 1954 and 1956. Many of the surviving Scenicruisers have been converted into motor-homes in recent years.

In the automobile sector, Loewy worked on the design of the Studebaker Commander in 193 and the Studebaker Avanti in 1963 for Sherwood Egbert and the Studebaker Corporation. The latter vehicle was said to be: “one of the more significant milestones of the postwar industry.”

A black 1972 Avanti II coupé owned by Loewy himself is included in the forthcoming Bonhams auction. The vehicle was sent directly from the Avanti Corporation in Indiana via New York to Loewy’s Paris home in 1972. It was one of only a handful of Avantis exported to France.

Of it, Robert Glover of Bonhams comments:

"Loewy is a legendary figure in the world of design and whilst the Coca-Cola bottle is probably his most famous, the number of iconic 20th century designs he created is astonishing. We expect interest in this car not only from established car collectors but also from collectors of 20th Century design."

Various views of the 1972 Avanti II coupé that Raymond Loewy both designed and owned (© Bonhams 2001 – 2012)

A guide price of €30,000 to €50,000 has been set for the car at the “Les Grandes Marques à Monaco” auction that will be held under the patronage of the Grimaldi family at the Musée des Voitures du Prince on the 11th May 2012. The auction coincides with the 7th bi-annual Monaco Historic Grand Prix.

Of his career, Loewy commented:

“I can say of myself, that I have made the mundane side of the 20th century more beautiful.”

He certainly achieved just that.

For more information contact Alexandra Heffler of Bonhams on +44 (0) 20 7468 8210 or email alexandrea.heffler@bonhams.com. Auction details and catalogue will be released in due course at: http://www.bonhams.com


Follow Bonhams on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/bonhams1793

Visit the official website of Raymond Loewy at: http://www.raymondloewy.com

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A review of Kingly Street’s Fornata

I first met Romain Pottier when he worked as the manager of The Collection in Brompton Cross last September. An experienced and able restaurateur, Pottier worked previously with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and at Asia de Cuba and the Empire Hotel in New York and when he told me of his new position launching the Sushi Samba concept in the UK, I suggested we meet to celebrate.

Fornata

Having read of a new take on the sharing concept that Russell Norman, famed for his Polpo and Polpetto restaurants, is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of, we opted to try the recently opened Fornata in Soho’s Carnaby Street.

A sister restaurant of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Mayfair, Fornata’s focus is on “small dishes to share” and has a menu developed by its executive chef Douglas Santi. Of his style, Santi, who terms himself a “spontaneous cook,” comments:

“My own cooking, my own food celebrates the freshest, highest quality ingredients. I work hard to personally source and find the best suppliers in the world to ensure this. More than that my food celebrates the wide array of cuisines and influences in which I’ve worked. I draw on the best traditions of each but I give them my own unique stamp.”

Douglas Santi: executive chef of Fornata and Babbo

Santi’s pedigree is impressive. Having first worked for Laurent Saudeau, the right hand man of the prominent nouvelle cuisine chef Paul Bocuse, at the age of 13, he progressed to the role of sous chef at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV in Monaco before opening his own restaurant in Sao Paulo in 2005. After a period as executive chef at Terme de Saturnia in Tuscany, Italy, Santi opened Babbo in Albermarle Street, W1 in 2009 to great acclaim before embarking on the Fornata project in 2011.

Launched last October on the site of a Japanese restaurant named Donzoko, Fornata is decorated with a mix of rustic simplicity and bright colours. Bright and airy, the setting is informal and equally suited to a quick lunch or for the enjoyment of the Italian style aperitivo with family and friends.

Fornata’s wood-fired oven

Fornata takes it name from the word “forno,” meaning “oven,” and the centrepiece on the ground floor of this restaurant, which spans over two floors, is indeed a wood-fired oven. Many of the dishes are hand baked and the menu recommends ordering 3 – 4 dishes per person.

Dishes came to the table as they were ready and in no particular order. We first tried some superb risotto balls with cheese (£3.95). A baked aubergine melanzana with melted cheese (£4.75) was equally enjoyable but the dishes that truly impressed were a seafood risotto (£9.75) that was full of flavour and the unique Fornata burger (£9.80). Baked within pizza dough and served with pickles, tomato and cheese, this was unlike anything I’d seen before and a true highlight.

A dish of spicy tomato chicken (£6.50) and a vegetarian lasagna (£7.50) were perfectly adequate but perhaps in need of a little more oomph. Like many restaurants, Fornata has veered on the side of caution here and rather like with my friend Loyd Grossman’s sauces, we both agreed these needed extra kicks of both spice and flavour.

Though Mr Pottier declared himself full, I greedily opted for a tiramisu cheesecake (£4) to conclude the meal. Here again Santi has chosen to take an unusual interpretation to a classic dish and though a little on the substantial side, the taste was spectacular.

The restaurant’s wine list is simple and short with prices ranging from £16.75 to £29 a bottle for both whites and reds. A £6 a glass Sansilverstro Gavi was perfectly quaffable and I also enjoyed a well executed Negroni (£5.50) as well.

On the drinks side, my only suggestion would be that Fornata improve their spirits offering. Their list currently only includes mainstream brands such as Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and Absolut. To reflect the individuality of the menu, the inclusion of more unusual spirits such as perhaps Martin Miller’s Gin and Roberto Cavalli Vodka would be more appropriate.

As Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Santi and his team have achieved just such at Fornata.

Fornata, 15 Kingly Street, Soho, London, W1B 5PS. Telephone: +44 (0) 20 8181 8887. Website: http://www.fornata.com. Follow Fornata on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/fornata

For more on Douglas Santi, go to: http://www.douglassanti.com. Follow Santi on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/douglasanti

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Don't panic: the Aston's thrown in


Properties with unusual extras

This morning an email pinged into my inbox from Jacqueline Branston, of whose concierge business I wrote last Friday. A wealthy Chinese client had tasked her to find a Central London rental for him and his family for the Olympics late last week. His only requirement: a panic room. This morning, in her message, Branston revealed that not only had she found one with such a feature but that the same house also had a bedroom lined with bulletproof materials. The delighted client, she also revealed, is to pay £40,000 a week for the privilege of staying in this off-market residence in Belgravia.

A scene from the 2002 film Panic Room directed by David Fincher and starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart and Forest Whitaker

Another option for a security conscious individual seeking a home with a panic room is the £2,750,000 Thankerton House in Woolton Park in Liverpool. The panic room at this 5-bedroom 1930s detached house has a steel reinforced door and wall panels and other security features include a CCTV system, two sets of automated remotely controlled gates and laminated ground floor windows. With 17 television points throughout the building, Big Brother can watch from every angle.

Thankerton House, 59 Woolton Hill Road, Woolton Park, Liverpool, Merseyside, L25 6HU comes complete with a panic room

In Mayfair, residents of the penthouses at The Grosvenor House Apartments by Jumeriah Living get another kind of extra. Not only do they get the use of an executive boardroom, gym and spa but also the services of a butler and access to a self-drive Aston Martin Rapide house car. Ranging in size from 450 square feet to 5,550 square feet, some of the apartments can be merged to create larger spaces and in certain cases an entire floor could be taken making them ideal for visiting tycoons, diplomats and Arab royals. A 4-bedroom penthouse is listed at £21,000 a week through the North Audley Street office of Savills.

Various views of the penthouses at The Grosvenor House Apartments, Park Lane, London, W1K 7TN that come complete with access to a self-drive Aston Martin Rapide

Previously I’ve seen houses for sale that have come complete with equally unusual extras thrown in. At the lower end of the scale, such things as fully stocked wine cellars, ducks and sheep often are passed to buyers but last November the owner of a 5-bedroom house named Kerrywood in South Ascot included his black Rolls-Royce and a Hyundai people carrier in the £3,700,000 asking price. Commenting at the time, agent Ed Shaw of Knight Frank stated:

"The owner is relocating to Singapore and doesn't want the hassle of shipping the car. It is just a little sweetener. It might turn some people on to have a good turn-key package and the car is in wonderful condition. It is a bit of fun, and it might titivate people a little bit."

Kerrywood, Horsegate Ride, South Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 9LS was marketed complete with a Rolls-Royce and a Hyundai people carrier

Jackie Branston has indeed proven that she can find her clients just what they require without panic but equally others are increasingly turning to inventive angles to make the properties they sell or let more appealing to an affluent international audience. Goodness knows what we’ll see thrown in next.

For more information on Jacqueline Branston’s concierge service, email her at: jackiebranston@rocketmail.com. Follow Jacqueline Branston on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/jackiebranston

For more information on the penthouses at The Grosvenor House Apartments by Jumeirah Living, contact +44 (0)20 7518 4444. More details can be viewed at: http://www.jumeirah.com/Jumeirah-Living/Destinations/London1/Grosvenor-House-Apartments/Penthouses

For more information on Thankerton House, contact the Wilmslow office of Savills on: +44 (0) 1625 460462. More details can be viewed at: http://www.primelocation.com/uk-property-for-sale/details/id/SAWS_300176

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Fair warning in The O.C.


The bankruptcy sale of One Pelican Hill Road North, Newport Coast

Listed most recently at $37,000,000, a price some 42% below the original asking price, One Pelican Hill Road North in Newport Coast in California, must be one of the most expensive bankruptcy sales currently on offer.

One Pelican Hill Road North, Newport Coast, Newport Beach, Orange County, California, CA 92657

Formerly known as the “Villa del Lago” or “Villa of the Lake,” One Pelican Hill Road North stands in 12.47 acres and includes a 17,706 square foot Italianate mansion with 8 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms. Additional features number staff accommodation, a gatehouse, garaging for 17 cars, a 1-acre lake with terraced waterfalls, a tennis court, stabling and a riding area and a private vineyard with a wine cave. A highlight is said to be the 644 square foot “car salon” and “guy’s entertaining area” designed to display trophy autos that comes equipped with plasma screen televisions.

Developed by Monarch Estates, founded by leading local realtor John McMonigle, views from the property are of said to be of the “city lights” but only of the ocean “on clear days.” Many argued that this was one of the key reasons that the house has failed to sell.

Two aerial views of One Pelican Hill Road North

Originally brought to the market at $87,000,000 ($4914 per square foot) in February 2009 through McMonigle’s realty agency McMonigle Group Inc., the price of the hilltop Villa del Lago fell to $57,000,000 in May 2010. By June 2010, rival agents were questioning how well the property competed with other less pricey homes with better ocean views and beachfront settings and Michael Gosselin of Surterre Properties noted that: “Newport Coast has yet to see any homes sell for more than $20,000,000, let alone $57,000,000.”

October 2010 brought further developments when the La Jolla Bank, which had financed the project, went bust. As a result of the transfer of the bank’s assets to the OneWest Bank, Monarch Estates were forced to curtail a lot of the luxuries they had planned such as a swimming pool and home theatre. Of this, McMonigle commented:

“When we realised that the lender would not fund all of the line items we had planned, we pared back. Instead of making it turnkey and furnished with accessories, we’re doing what a lot of spec builders do, leaving it to the buyer to pick wallpaper, finish the theater [sic] and do it to the buyer’s specifications… We got it to a marketable state.”

Agent and developer John McMonigle

By January 2011, it was reported that three cash offers for the Villa del Lago had been received but all were below $37,000,000 ($2090 per square foot). Presumably because the land alone had cost somewhere in the region of $3,200,000 in 2003 and in addition there were five mortgages that included £27,30,000 in construction loans, these were not accepted. Within weeks the price was slashed by a further $20,000,000 to $37,000,000, a figure that McMonigle claimed would attract: “A timely sale… [and] get agent and buyers’ attention.”

By April 2011, and in part due to the impact of the failure to sell the Villa del Lago and three other properties developed by Monarch Estates, John McMonigle filed for bankruptcy as an individual. In a brief statement at the time his spokesman commented:

“In a necessary move brought about by an ongoing stalemate with uncooperative lenders in an unrelated real estate development business, John McMonigle, founder and principal of Newport Beach-based luxury real estate firm, McMonigle Group Inc., has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.”

“We have worked hard with our lenders to try to restructure and work out this debt with little or no cooperation. The filing will allow us to maintain a laser-sharp focus on our real estate sales brokerage business, McMonigle Group Inc., which will continue normal operations.”

June 2011 saw Mr McMonigle cease to be involved with Villa del Lago. By September of the same year, with a new manager for the project, Corey Gulbranson, it was decided to ditch a name that had become associated with failure and identify the estate just as One Pelican Road North. Of the move, the new agent for the property, Rob Giem of the Hôm Group, said:

“For various reasons, simply referring to the property by its address has allowed us to move forward with its marketing free of prior associations and impressions from other’s marketing efforts.”

Internal shots of the property

Plainly the new marketing campaign did not achieve the desired result and though the agents blamed issues with “slow-moving bankruptcy-court paperwork,” no buyer has been forthcoming.

One Pelican Hill Road North’s tennis court and 17-car garage

Now being promoted as being priced at: “far below replacement cost, the compelling value and singular opportunity of this offering will never be equaled in Orange County,” One Pelican Hill Road North is being offered for auction.

In their advertisement, the Hôm Group state that “no opening bid” is sought on Thursday 26th April 2012 when they attempt to sell the property at 7pm.

It’ll be fascinating to see if Orange County’s number one white elephant will actually sell and what price it ultimately achieves.


For more information on the McMonigle Group, go to: http://www.mcmoniglegroup.com

Follow John McMonigle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/JohnMcMonigle

Viewing arrangements are most specific with the Hôm Group hosting a “luxury open house” on Sunday 22nd April from 12 noon until 4pm. They instruct interested parties as follows:

“All guests must check-in at The Resort at Pelican Hill prior to home tour. Upon completing registration, guests will be offered a 45-minute agent guided tour of this incredible property. Please park at The Resort at Pelican Hill. Guests will be provided complimentary shuttle service to and from the property.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A villa of many names


The sale of the historic Villa Reale di Marlia

Alternatively known as the Villa Pecci Blunt, the Royal Villa of Marlia in Tuscany has recently come to the market through Sotheby’s in Rome. This important neoclassical estate of 16th and 17th century houses and gardens is one that has had many names and one that has been occupied by numerous individuals whose names have changed equally often.

The Villa Reale di Marlia (the Royal Villa of Marlia or Villa Pecci Blunt)

Built on the site of a 9th century fort, the villa was first remodeled by the wealthy Lucchese Olivieri Lelio Bears in the Baroque style who also created a garden adorned with nymphs, statutes, ponds and precise geometric symmetry.

In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa
Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca and Pombino, purchased the villa for somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 francs after forcing Count Bears to sell.

Spending some 500,000 francs between 1811 and 1814, Baciocchi redeveloped the parkland of the estate in the English style and altered the façade of the villa with the help of architects Giovanni Lazzarini and Pierre-Theodore Bieanime. In their main, the stunning architecture and parkland she commissioned remain to this day.

The greatest Italian musicians, including the renowned violinist Niccolo Paganini, performed at the villa during Baciocchi’s tenure and guests such as Count Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich-Beilstein, Chancellor of the Austrian Empire State (1821 – 1848), are said to have been hugely impressed by the house and its grounds.

When Napoleon fell in 1814, Baciocchi, in her ninth month of pregnancy, was forced to flee and then imprisoned in Vienna. The Villa Reale di Marlia passed into the possession of the Dukes of Parma and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany before coming into the ownership of Victor Emmanuel II.

Charles Ferdinand, His Royal Highness Prince of Capua (1811 – 1862) pictured with his wife, Her Royal Highness Penelope Caroline, Princess of Capua (1805 – 1882), and their daughter, Vittoria, Countess of Mascali (1838 – 1895)

Instead of occupying it himself, the King of Sardinia chose to give the property to Carlo, Prince of Capua, the brother of Ferdinand II, the last King of the Two Sicilies. The Prince of Capua had been disinherited for marrying a British commoner named Miss Penelope Smyth and the King offered the estate as a suitable residence for when they were welcomed back to Italy from exile. The villa, as a result, became “royal” and was renamed the “Villa Reale di Marlia.” Described as “romantic” but “unhappy,” the couple spent the remainder of the lives at the Villa Reale di Marlia and are buried in a chapel in the grounds of the estate.

Following the death of the Prince of Capua, his son Count Francesco Mascali (1837 – 1862) inherited the Villa Reale di Marlia. Said to have been a religious zealot and extremely eccentric, Mascali’s time at the estate was troubled and on his death the villa and its contents were sold to cover substantial debts.

Under subsequent ownership many of the trees were cut down for timber and the Villa Reale di Marlia faded somewhat into obscurity until Cecil and Anna Laetitia Pecci Blunt purchased the property in 1923. With their wealth, a full-scale renovation commenced with aplomb.

Countess Anna Laetitia “Mimi” Pecci Blunt (1885 – 1971) at the Villa Reale di Marlia in 1967

Employing the French landscape architect Jacques Greber, the Pecci Blunts created new areas for recreation that included a large swimming pool, a tennis court and a bowling green. These are said to perfectly complement the existing avenue of camellia flowers, an Arab style garden, lake and forestry for which the villa is famed.

The Pecci Blunt name and how it came about is itself intriguing. Cecil Charles Blumenthal was a member of the hugely successful F. Blumenthal & Co. family of New York, noted manufacturers of leather goods. Following the death of his father in 1914, Cecil Charles Blumenthal changed his name to Blunt after his mother married the 2nd duc de Montmorency.

Blunt became engaged to Donna Anna Laetitia “Mimi” Pecci in May 1919. The only daughter of Count Pecci of Rome, a nephew of Pope Leo II, and her husband they both took the name “Pecci Blunt” when Blunt was created a Count by his wife’s great uncle, Pope Pius XI. Their marriage produced three daughters and a son.

Operating out of first their Roman palazzo and later also at their homes in Paris, New York and the Villa Reale di Marlia, the couple became known as generous patrons of the arts and hosts of the great and the good. In 1973, for example, the Italian Prime Minister Andreotti met French President Pompidou at the villa and subsequently a conference of the foreign ministers of the European Community was held there in 1975.

Fulco di Verdura, the Duke Fulco di Verdura (1898 – 1978), and the Baronessa Lo Monaco as Fidel Castro at the 1960 "Marlia Olympics"

The  private parties of the Pecci Blunts were equally impressive. In 1960, with 60 guests in residence, the countess decided to organise them into teams for a “jovial parody of the Olympic Games in Rome that year.” The “Marlia Olympics,” involved the likes of the Baronessa Lo Monaco, the American widow of a Sicilian nobleman who was known to her friends as “La Moffa,” dressed in a beard in the guise of Fidel Castro sporting a plastic machine gun that fired sparks. Others such as the society jeweler Fulco di Verdura wore a cap to indicate his status as a referee.

Some way into his marriage, Count Pecci Blunt met a young man named Cecil Everley (1912 - 1989) reportedly at either Lillywhite’s department store in London, at a ranch in Santa Barbara with a lesbian named Alice de Lamar or at the home of the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, himself disgraced for homosexual offences in 1931. The colourful count and Everley, a former footman, are said to have earnestly begun an intimate relationship with Pecci Blunt giving his lover a home in California and another, La Rondine, on Cap d’Ail, in the south of France. Count Pecci Blunt henceforth divided his life between his male lover and his wife and as a result she was often referred to as “La Reine des Deux Ceciles” or “The Queen of the Two Ceciles.”

At one party, Everley, who later became a successful painter with the Aga Khan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder amongst his collectors, is said to have asked a society hostess named Daisy Fellowes who had just sold her boat, the Sister Anne:

“Do you miss your yacht?”

She curtly replied:

“Do you miss your tray?”

The relationship between Pecci Blunt and Everley continued until the death of the count in 1965. Afterwards, Everley began escorting his female patrons to parties in New York and took up with a much younger Chilean he met at one such gathering named Guy Burgos. After he left her to marry Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer in 1966, Everley found himself an even younger African-American male hairdresser from Florida. Everley died of AIDS in 1989 and it is reported that his hairdresser heir sold the entire collection of objets d’art and antiques that Pecci Blunt had given him to a dealer unseen.

A Google search for Count Cecil Pecci Blunt’s descendants reveals that his daughter Camilla, who was married to Earl McGrath, died in June 2007. The New York Times announcement lists that she is survived by her sisters Laetitia and Viviana Pecci Blunt. There is, however, no mention of her brother, Count Dino.

The Count and Countess Pecci Blunt, Dino and Donatella, pictured at their home in Rome, the Palazzo Pecci, in October 1987

Articles on Count Dino Pecci Blunt, a man described by Montreal Gazette columnist Suzy Knickerbocker as “the Roman bachelor who travels in the international set,” also detail that his wife, Countess Donatella Pecci Blunt, published a novel, The Countess in Red, in 1989. She is described as being well known for hosting parties named “The Best” in her palazzo in Rome to celebrate “the VIPs of politics, culture and entertainment.” Elsewhere, Countess Donatella is listed as the hostess of Italian chat shows and her perfume brand, Diable Au Corps, remains widely available online.

For reasons not mentioned, the Pecci Blunt family are now selling the Villa Reale di Marlia. The 118,403 square foot property, which stands in 39.5 acres of gardens, consists of three main buildings: the 17,760 square foot Main Villa, the 53,819 square foot Villa dell’Orologio and the 19,375 square foot Villa of the Bishop. The Main Villa is spread over three levels and connected by a substantial staircase and elevator. The floors are mainly Venetian mosaics and many of the walls and ceilings are frescoed.

A price of 45,000,000 (circa £37,500,000) is quoted on various websites for the property though Sotheby’s themselves simply lists it as: “Price on application.”

When the Villa Reale di Marlia eventually sells, it will indeed be fascinating to observe the next chapter in the life of this house of intrigue.

The Villa Reale di Marlia is for sale through Sotheby’s Rome office. Contact Diletta Spinola for more information on +39 06.69.38.00.76 or +39 06.69.92.39.96: http://www.sothebysrealty.com/eng/sales/detail/180-l-682-4000017296/the-royal-villa-of-marlia-lucca-tu-55012

View the official website for the Villa Reale di Marlia, Località Villa Reale, Marlia - 55014 Lucca, Italy at: http://www.parcovillareale.it

For more information on Countess Donatella Pecci Blunt’s perfume, go to: http://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Donatella-Pecci Blunt/Diable-Au-Corps-9105.html