In 1922, shortly after the following photos were taken, Italy’s first female racing driver, Baroness Maria ‘Antoinette’ Avanzo (1889-1977), arrived in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. The reason she came is a bit of a mystery, but it appears she was recovering from an accident and wanted a complete change. During a beach race in Denmark the previous year her 12 cylinder Packard caught fire and she had to drive it into the sea to save herself.
Antoinette and Baron Eustachio Avanzo rented a luxurious home in Caledonia Road, Rose Bay. The Baroness dropped her title in Australia and was known simple as Madame Avanzo. The couple advertised for a houseman, and were delighted when a young countryman applied. He was 25 year old Antonio Zetto, recently arrived from Brisbane.
Madame Avanzo was soon part of the Eastern Suburbs social scene. Oh my, so many opportunities to show off her amazing collection of jewels. Pieces she was not wearing were hidden in her bedroom, in a locked hatbox. Along with diamond rings and necklaces there was a gold watch, given to her by the King and Queen of Italy in recognition of her motor racing achievements.
On December 8 Madame Avanzo went out for the afternoon. When she returned her hatbox had been emptied of the jewels, valued at around £4,000. Also missing was her young houseman.
The police were informed, and word went out around the country that Zetto was almost certainly the culprit. He was arrested at his lodgings in Melbourne twelve days later. He was quite candid about his crime;
‘Yes, I pinched the jewellery. Anybody could. I took the keys from the top of the wardrobe in Madame’s bedroom. and opened the hat-box, took the stuff and cleared out. I went to Strathfield, got a train to Goulburn, and got to Melbourne by stages, because I knew that if I went there straight I’d be pinched.’ (Truth Newspaper 13 Jan. 1924)
He was far less candid about the whereabouts of the missing booty, telling detectives he had sent it all to Paris. It was a good try, but detectives weren’t about to believe him and searched the premises;
Carefully concealed in a cistern a valuable assortment of jewellery was found ….A further search was made, and the carpets and linoleums were taken up and every possible hiding place explored. Eventually Detective Saker discovered a small hole in the plaster laths in the wall behind the washstand. Taking his coat off and rolling up his sleeves he explored in all directions, and eventually located a chamois leather bag containing jewels probably of the value of about £1500. Altogether the value of the jewels recovered is estimated at about £3500, Very few items on the list sent by the New South Wales police remain undiscovered. (Daily Standard December, 22 1923)
They also found sticks of gelignite and detonators at the property.
The reason Zetto had been so wary of capture was that he knew he was also being hunted over a previous crime in Queensland. His photo had been circulated interstate, which is how detectives tracked him down in Melbourne without much trouble. He was taken into custody, and made an initial court appearance dressed very smartly in a grey suit and colourful silk socks.
His appearance was vastly different by the next day;
Antonio, for reasons of his own, took a dislike to the stylish grey suit. In a fury yesterday he tore it to shreds and stood in the yard in a costume that would not have passed the beach clothing censors. It was past repair, and the young Italian may have thought he was safe from public appearance today, but a set of prison moleskins was served out to him. (The Herald, December 27 1923)
The prisoner’s efforts to avoid attending court backfired. He had to stand in the dock looking, as one report stated, ‘…as though he had been dragged down a mountain’;
His coat was a prison moleskin, gathered tightly around his neck to conceal the absence of collar and tie, and his trousers had been designed for a much smaller man. They were nearly 12 inches short, and had a gaping hole over one knee. (The Argus, 28 December 1923)
A chastened Zetto pleaded guilty. Asked by the judge if there was a previous conviction against him for safe-blowing he replied. ‘Yes‘. This offence had occurred in Queensland;
An Italian named Antonia Jacobus Zetto, a recent arrival in the State, pleaded guilty to a charge of stealing £24 16s 5d, the property of the Southport Town Council….The Crown Prosecutor stated that the prisoner entered the Southport Town Council building at 3 a.m. on May 13 and used gelignite to blow the safe. (Daily Standard, May 24 1923)
He was sentenced to two years in Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol;
The wily Zetto feigned insanity and was being transferred to the Goodna Asylum when he escaped, ending up at Madame Avanzo’s home in Sydney. His recovered safe blowing equipment was stowed in his baggage, awaiting the next opportunity to put it to use. 😎
During his trial over the jewellery theft Zetto begged to allowed to return to his home town in Italy ‘Where everybody loves me.’ The judge replied tersely, ‘Apparently no-one has found cause to love you here,’ and sentenced the prisoner to three years gaol. (The Sun 15 February 1924)
By the way, the Baroness was as happy in farming clothes as she was in evening dress and diamonds. She purchased a farm outside Sydney during her stay and was very hands-on. In the photo below she is pictured at the wheel of a tractor rather than a racing car.
Reunited with her jewels, Madame Avanzo returned to Italy…and to further adventures, in 1926.
FOR MORE ON THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF THE BARONESS, CLICK HERE.