For most of her 81 years, Amelia "Mimi" Neville Shields Guirola lived amid glittering luxury. But after she died, what remained of her extensive jewelry collection ended up in a safety deposit box in Sewickley. Today's auction of 50 pieces of jewelry at Concept Gallery marks the end of a quest for her niece, Margie Shields Gilfillan, who spent more than a decade trying to get access to the box so she could settle her aunt's estate.
"Mimi took me in when I was a teenager. She acted as my mother during a really tough time in my young life," Ms. Gilfillan said, adding that she returned twice to El Salvador to visit her aunt.
Born into a family of early Western Pennsylvania settlers and educated at a private school in Boston, Miss Shields met Eduardo Guirola, a rich investor and landowner, while vacationing in Guatemala. The couple married in 1946 in Mexico City, Mexico.
The Guirolas were among 14 families who owned all of the land in El Salvador. Besides raising cattle, they grew cotton, indigo and coffee. For nearly 20 years, the couple lived in Amantla, an estate set on a steep hillside below a coffee plantation. They hired a Pittsburgh construction firm to build the mansion and ensure that it could survive earthquakes.
"She certainly had more than her share of tragedy. Her life started as a fairy tale," said Ms. Gilfillan, a Point Park University accounting professor whose father, William Dickinson Shields, was Amelia Shields' brother.
Misfortune and loss first visited the family in 1958. While in New York with his wife, 38-year-old Eduardo Guirola learned his brother-in-law had died in an auto accident. He flew to Paris and on the day of the funeral, also was killed in an auto accident.
Mrs. Guirola, accompanied by her parents, Dickinson and Mildred Shields, remained in New York until October of that year, when the couple's third child, Cynthia, was born. Then, she returned to El Salvador.
"The year after that, I went to live with her," said Ms. Gilfillan, who stayed in El Salvador from age 14 to 17. At the time, her parents were divorcing and her mother was ill.
In Santa Tecla, then a quiet, rural town with Spanish architecture, Ms. Gilfillan was removed from that drama and loved her new home.
"I went to the American school, learned another culture and that there was a world outside of Sewickley. It was wonderful. I didn't want to come back. ... I suspect Mimi wanted a project and I was a project."
Over the next 30 years, Mrs. Guirola returned to Sewickley when she could to visit family and friends. She often brought jewelry with her, which she left in a bank's safety deposit box. In 1980, as a 12-year civil war erupted in El Salvador, her eldest son, 33-year-old Eduardo, was kidnapped by guerrillas.
"Mimi sold a lot of things to get the ransom. She paid and they delivered his dead body to her," Ms. Gilfillan said. No one was ever arrested for the murder.
Also in 1980, the El Salvadoran government redistributed tens of thousands of acres of land the Guirola family owned. Mrs. Guirola kept Amantla and some surrounding acreage.
On Jan. 13, 2001, El Salvador suffered a series of earthquakes and mudslides.
She had to vacate the house after the mudslide. She never went back and lived in much reduced circumstances," Ms. Gilfillan said.
On Sept. 22, 2002, Mrs. Guirola died at age 81 in Santa Tecla. Years passed and because no will was found, the state of Pennsylvania considered her jewelry unclaimed property. Cynthia Guirola, her youngest child, died in 2008.
Two years ago, Tomas, Mrs. Guirola's second eldest son, located a will his mother wrote in 1975 leaving her estate to her siblings, all of whom were dead.
Ms. Gilfillan spent the next two years working with lawyers in Pennsylvania and El Salvador to open an ancillary estate in Allegheny County. In February, a brown envelope filled with 50 pieces of jewelry arrived by special delivery at Ms. Gilfillan's Sewickley home.
"My hands were shaking. We had no idea what it was. It wasn't even insured," she said.
The delivery man asked, "You've been waiting a long time for this?"
"Yes," she replied. "Ten years."
The auction runs from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today at Concept Gallery, 1031 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square (15218), 412-242-9200 or www.conceptgallery.com.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.