An Agusta Ape

An Agusta Ape – £50k for Piaggio Ape used by Countess Francesca Agusta (1942 – 2001) – 1978 Piaggio Ape ‘limousine’ by Pavesi used by the controversial Countess Agusta – a very wealthy woman who either fell or was pushed to her death from her home above Portofino, Italy in 2001 – to be auctioned by RM Sotheby’s as part of their ‘Driving Into Summer’ 21st to 29th May 2020 auction with an estimate of £37,000 to £49,000 ($45,000 to $60,000, €42,000 to €55,000 or درهم165,000 to درهم220,000).

1978 Piaggio Ape ‘limousine’ used by the controversial Countess Agusta – a woman who either fell or was pushed to her death from her home above Portofino in 2001 – to be auctioned

On 8th January 2001, “shop assistant turned model turned multi-millionairess many times over turned fugitive” (via a stretch in what American’s so pleasantly term ‘pokey’) Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta “disappeared” from the terrace of her Ligurian seaside home. The series of events that preceded and followed could have featured in an Agatha Christie novel or a Sherlock Holmes story.


Situated dominant above the “requisite stop for billionaires” that is Portofino – a colourfully painted former fishing village now peppered with Salvatore Ferragamo and Louis Vuitton stores – Villa Altachiara became the residence of the “embodiment of La Dolce Vita” Francesca Graffagni after she met the “helicopter entrepreneur” Count Corradino Agusta in the 1960s.


Graffagni saw off the business tycoon’s first wife, Pupetta Maresca, after a torrid affair and following their marriage in 1974, amongst other things, became chatelaine of a 40-room property complete with a helipad. It had been built in 1870 by George Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon – whose death was attributed by amongst others Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the “curse of King Tut” – as his holiday home and during the 1970s and 1980s guests to “jet-set parties” given at the house by the socialite Countess were ferried back and forth from their dock in Portofino harbour in a custom built 1978 Piaggio Ape coachbuilt ‘limousine.’ This vehicle, described as a “perfect yacht tender” with its opulently patterned interior and passenger-driver intercom, is now for sale.


Countess Francesca Agusta (née Francesca Vacca Graffagni, 29th October 1942 – 8th January 2001). It is most surprising that the late Dominick Dunne did not make a television programme about her life and demise.
Villa Altachiara (alternatively known as ‘Villa Alta Chiara’ or ‘Villa Carnarvon’) was one of Countess Agusta’s homes from the 1960s until her death in 2001; it was originally built as a holiday home for Lord Carnarvon (26th June 1866 – 5th April 1923) – the financier of Howard Carter’s explorations of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings that led to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Carnarvon family hosted many guests during their ownership, amongst them Brooke Astor and Evelyn Waugh.

Count Agusta died in 1989 without divorcing his second wife in spite of separating from her in 1985. At that time, in addition to Villa Altachiara, he had given her four apartments in Milan, an estate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, family jewellery and an undisclosed cash sum. With his demise, she came into yet further fortune.


This by-then “very wealthy woman” hit the headlines again in 1994 when she and her new lover, a “former Portofino playboy politician [named] Maurizio Raggio,” were discovered to have been part of a corruption scandal involving Bettino Craxi, the Prime Minister of Italy from 1983 to 1987. Before police could apprehend them to charge them with amongst other things money laundering, the pair fled to Mexico and lived on her estate until 1997 as fugitives. During this period, the Countess reportedly attempted suicide at least once.


Upon her return to Italy, the Countess plea-bargained and spent just three months in Milan’s Opera prison for her crimes in spite of receiving a two-year jail sentence. After “some further time under house arrest” in the Villa Altachiara, the “retired” gadabout then took up with a Mexican, Tirso ‘Tito’ Chazaro (also known as ‘Tirso Di Ricardo’ and ‘Rafael Tirso Roncado Gonzales’), and lived in the style of Miss Havisham. She was rarely seen in public and having become dependent on drink and drugs, was known for her erratic behaviour and temper.


“Considerably the worse for wear and muttering she would not be coming back” on the night of 8th January 2001, the Countess supposedly told her lover and two others present that she was going for a swim, but either slipped on wet leaves or was pushed off a veranda into the sea. A search followed, but after the only traces found were the Countess’s dressing gown on the seabed close to the Villa Altachiara and her slippers on nearby rocks, press reports suggested she had either committed suicide or, given her past form, staged an “elaborate disappearing act.”


Countess Agusta’s badly decomposed body washed up three weeks later on a beach at Toulon on the French Riviera. Her feet had been gnawed off by fish, her skull was smashed and her face was disfigured. She could only be identified by two rings she was wearing and her exact cause of death could thus not be determined.


As an autopsy found no trace of water in her lungs, she plainly did not die by drowning, but in in 2004 the Countess’s brother, Domenico Vacca Graffagni, was quoted in the Independent as stating: “The [original] inquiry was closed in a hasty fashion because of absence of proof, relying too readily on ‘reasonable doubt’ … It was manslaughter. He [Chazaro] was always beating her. He didn’t mean to kill her. But that evening things didn’t go the way the Carabinieri said, my sister was not drunk and she did not slip on wet leaves on the veranda.”


Adding further to speculation, much earlier, the Countess’s step-son, racing driver and team owner Rocky Agusta (1950 – 2018), told Corriere della Sera in 2001: “Francesca was a beautiful woman, simpatica, very rich… People have written that she inherited 500bn lire, but if it had been only 50 or 25, who commits suicide with 25bn lire set aside? … The people who were around her certainly did not help her…  It’s not up to me to formulate accusations, but Francesca was not alone that night. She was very upset. She should have been put to bed. Instead, they let her go out into a dark, wet, cold night, not even dressed.”


In due course, the last of many wills left by Countess Agusta revealed Tirso Chazaro to be her sole beneficiary, but after this was challenged in court by her former lover, Maurizio Raggio, the pair split the legacy – reported to be worth as much as £165 million ($201 million, €186 million or درهم738 million) according to the Guardian in 2001 – sixty-forty between them.


In 2009, the Villa Altachiara was offered for sale initially for £44 million ($54 million, €50 million or درهم198 million) and then for £30 million ($37 million, €34 million or درهم135 million) in 2014. It supposedly eventually sold for less than half that sum to a Russian billionaire a number of years later in spite of an estate agent remarking: “Some say the spirit of Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta still walks the estate looking for her husband and you can hear her shouting for him on the wind.”


An estimate of £37,000 to £49,000 ($45,000 to $60,000, €42,000 to €55,000 or درهم165,000 to درهم220,000) for the Countess’s Piaggio Ape. Described as “sweet” and “[anything but] an Italian tuk-tuk” by RideApart, the one-off private taxi will be auctioned as part of the forthcoming RM Sotheby’s ‘Driving Into Summer’ 21st to 29th May 2020 online sale. One can only hope it finds a happier home than it encountered at that of its former mistress.


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  1. The vehicle resembles Laura Ashley’s boudoir. If Sir Bernard were still around he could have bought it for his yacht.

  2. Absolutely fascinating story, I love that little vehicle, a cross between a taxi and a small camper
    van. Love it!


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