Sept 16, 10:40 AM (ET)
By BEN DOBBIN
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) - An Army corporal stationed in Italy in the waning days of World War II acquired a suitcase of war booty he sent home and stowed in a bedroom closet in upstate New York for 65 years. In it: Il Duce's duds.
The brown leather suitcase was purported to have been taken from Benito Mussolini when the Fascist dictator and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were captured and executed by partisans in April 1945 as they tried to flee northern Italy along with retreating German forces.
The family of Paul Moriconi, a Rochester doctor who died last year at 87, said he acquired the suitcase from his supervisor, Col. Charles Poletti, a regional commissioner for the Allied military government in Italy who had served briefly as New York's governor in 1942.
The ensemble - a gray gabardine military tunic, matching riding pants, a khaki Italian military shirt and a rust-colored woolen dress - is being auctioned in Dallas on Sunday by Greg Martin Auctions/Heritage Auctions, which estimates it could fetch $10,000 to $15,000.
Martin, a specialist in antique arms, armor and historic memorabilia who sold a globe that once belonged to Adolf Hitler for $100,000 at a 2007 auction in San Francisco, said "the provenance of this material is impeccable."
The uniform carries no identifying marks linking it to Mussolini. The jacket had no medals attached, and a tuxedo stripe running up the side of the trousers had been removed. But the tale of how the items came into Moriconi's possession was recounted in a formal letter Poletti sent on request to his former personal secretary in 2001.
Poletti, who died a year later, said members of the partisan resistance movement presented him the suitcase and its contents at his office in Milan in late April 1945. He instructed his secretary, he added, "to dispose of these articles as he saw fit."
Moriconi, a son of Italian immigrants and a Rochester native, mailed the suitcase to his mother. Once in the 1950s, he hammed it up for relatives by donning the uniform at a Halloween party, but he typically had to be persuaded to show off the clothes to friends.
"If we were having a dinner party, it was usually me who coaxed him," said his widow, Regina. "He was the type of fellow who never wanted to draw attention to himself.
"He realized the great value the uniform held historically," she said. "I think he felt more fortunate than proud or tickled that he was in a position that he could own these things."
Christopher Duggan, a professor of modern Italian history at the University of Reading in England, said Mussolini's capture took place during the war's chaotic finale.
"The situation on the ground was so confused with no really strong, clear chain of command and so many partisan bands operating against each other, that it's very hard to verify what really is genuine" among wartime artifacts, Duggan said. "I'd want to know a lot more before risking my money."
Martin said he first learned about the clothing from Moriconi about a decade ago.
"I reached out to other military collectors who all said, 'Yes, this is definitely the type of uniform Mussolini wore and the type of dress we've seen pictures of his mistress in,'" the auctioneer said.
"We're in a period of time where a lot of these old guys who brought relics back are passing them on," he said. "If this had been a third-party or fourth-party handover, you could possibly be suspicious. But this is actually from the fountainhead itself, taken at the time, and that's about the best provenance I think you're going to get."