The Strozzi millions and the forged will, 1982:

On 14 March 1986, under the headline “Cousin inherits marquis’s millions”, The Times announced that a letter allegedly by Uberto Strozzi, owner of the Strozzi Palace in the centre of Florence, leaving his fortune of £18m to a friend, was a forgery, and that the money would be divided between the dead man’s nearest cousins, Mrs Rosalind Varley in England and two Steward families in New Zealand. My Uncle Jack, whose mother was also a cousin of Uberto Strozzi, told me what had happened:

“When Uberto died in 1982 a great problem arose. There appeared to be no will of any sort, although every corner of the great palace behind the cathedral was diligently searched several times over and no doubt all the other villas too — but there was no trace of a will. It therefore appeared that an intestacy had occurred, so administrators were appointed to deal with the situation. After some months however a claimant to the estate appeared in the person of Signor Sorri, who was following an Italian tradition of forging wills, made possible by the fact that providing a will is a holograph document in the testator’s handwriting, it does not need witnessing. In English law, except in extreme circumstances as in a battle or a shipwreck, every will must be witnessed by two witnesses in a formal manner. This so-called will was very cleverly written by Sorri or his agent, and stated that Uberto, in the recollection of a youthful attachment, had left all his property to a certain lady, although the relationship must have been decidedly platonic. Sorri found out about this relationship and adopted the lady as his mother – as one can do in Italy – and she agreed to proceed as far “as the law permitted”. The forgery was very cleverly done, as shown by a photograph of the will published in the Florentine papers, carefully written in an elderly scrawl.

Sorri had apparently already done several deals of a dubious nature, and the idea of forging a will is not uncommon, partly because of this defect in the law. A famous example is given in Puccini’s delightful opera Gianni Schicchi, itself based on the story of a famous mediaeval rascal to whom Dante gave an honoured place in the Inferno. The chief problem faced by Sorri was how to plant his will, and his solution seemed almost unbelievable. He made friends with an unscrupulous policeman, and together they made an appointment to visit the Strozzi Palace on some pretext. The housekeeper, who had been living in the palace since Uberto died, and had no doubt accompanied many search parties looking for the will, let them in, but also became suspicious, and telephoned my cousin Maurizio Burlamacchi about the visit. Sorri was apparently wearing blue spectacles and a false beard. Maurizio immediately got on his bicycle and raced over to the Palace about half a mile away, then joined the procession of Sorri, the policeman, and the housekeeper, going up and down the numerous galleries and corridors. After some minutes Sorri halted and said “I think I see an envelope lying under that cupboard. I wonder if it is the will.” He picked up the envelope, and sure enough the word ‘Testamento’ was written on it, whereupon Maurizio exclaimed “That is a forgery,” and insisted that the envelope be handed over to the police”.

(Gwendoline, née Steward, mother of Uberto, was the daughter of Florance Marion Skinner)