Near the beginning of the new fictional television series “Trust,” the billionaire oil titan Jean Paul Getty is seen planning what would become the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. His 15-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, a budding artist who’s visiting from Rome, bursts into his grandfather’s quiet study, wearing long hair, a flowing shirt and bellbottom jeans. He’s initially a shock to his grandfather, but in time they come to connect over their shared love of art, and, at one point, discuss how to display the elder Getty’s collection of Elgin marbles in the Getty Villa. Getty even hints he wants more.
“You’re going to get more from the British Museum?” asks the grandson, who’s played by Harris Dickinson. “Something like that,” says Getty, played by Donald Sutherland. In reality, Getty never owned any Elgin marbles. (He did own a rare Greek golden funerary wreath from the fourth century B.C., which the family returned to Greece about a decade ago, amidst political pressure.) But what he did have was the kind of ruthlessness and obsession with collecting that really would lead someone of his means to try to buy out contested treasures from a national museum.
The television show, like last year’s movie “All the Money in the World” with Christopher Plummer in the lead role, takes a variety of liberties with Getty’s life — from the specifics of his art collection to the circumstances of his grandson’s kidnapping. Amidst the renewed interest in Getty’s exceptional life (as well as the renovation of the Getty Villa, which reopened in the spring) it’s worth looking harder at his art collecting, which is both a key part of his legacy desires: namely business, control, and calculation of every kind. From an early age, Getty was intrigued by the power of money — and soon by the power of art. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1892, he studied at the University of Southern California, the University of California at Berkeley, and then Oxford University. He was only 21 when he graduated Oxford, returned to the American Midwest, and began working in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his father owned the Minnehoma Oil Company, according to his 1976 obituary in The New York Times. He and his father bought up oil leases around the state, which were being sold for cheap prices since the oil beneath them was thought to be impossible to access. When the Gettys did access it, however, they resold the leases at a huge profit. By the time he was 23, Getty had made his first million.
He spent two years partying (he was a notorious and lifelong womanizer) before returning to the family business at age 25, where he built upon his wealth. He married the 18-year-old Jeannette Dumont when he was 30 — the first of what would be five marriages over his 83-year life. In 1957, when he was 65, Fortune magazine named him the richest private citizen in the world.
His desire for control was apparent early on. When he ate, for example, he was rumored to have chewed each bite a precise 33 times. He did body-building exercises, walked two miles a
day, and, in his older age, had a doctor come to his room in the evenings to give him shots for erectile dysfunction so that he might service the harem of women he kept in his home. His obsession with virility ran deep. Even though he was nearly 50 when the United States entered World War II, he sent a telegram to James V. Forrestal, the Under Secretary of the Navy and a friend, offering himself up for naval service. “I am 49 but in good health, have owned three yachts and am experienced in their care and maintenance,” Getty telegrammed. “If Navy can use me in any capacity, please advise. Regards.” (Forrestal declined his request.)
Even when he became a billionaire, he complained frequently about money — either about not having enough of it or lamenting how hard it was to be rich. In an article for The Saturday Evening Post earnestly titled “It’s Tough to Be a Billionaire,” Getty wrote, “I never give money to individuals... it’s unrewarding and wrong.” In another piece for the bimonthly magazine, he explained why. “If I were convinced that by giving away my fortune I could make a real contribution toward solving the problems of world poverty, I’d give away 99.5 percent of all I have immediately. But a hard-eyed appraisal of the situation convinces me this is not the case,” he wrote. “However admirable the work of the best charitable foundation, it would accustom people to the passive acceptance of money.” For Getty, life was centered on hard work. Money couldn’t just be “given away.” The apotheosis of this conviction came when he initially refused to pay the ransom for his grandson, leading his kidnappers to chop off his ear and send it to the elder Getty.
At the same time that he was refusing to pay a few million in ransom, he was also spending tens of millions of dollars on art. In many ways, Getty was the radical distillation of any great art collector — obsessive, meticulous, always on the lookout for deals, attempting to blaze his own trail of artistic style while also respecting universal notions of taste. Collecting for him was both a form of business as well as a way of enacting control. His family members — some of whom committed suicide, became addicted to drugs, or, as in the case of his grandson, were kidnapped — proved increasingly uncontrollable. Art, however, was something he could dictate and possess.
From a business perspective, Getty closed exceptional deals, purchasing many of his most valuable pieces during the Great Depression when prices were especially low. “Prices about one-fourth 1910-1929. Present prices are the lowest of the century,” he wrote excitedly in 1939. Based at his English manor called Sutton Place for most of his later life, he continued to travel to mainland Europe to meet with dealers and to compare his collection to major museums — often trying to best them. He fell in love with Ancient Roman art during numerous trips to Italy, using the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum as the inspiration for the Getty Villa in Malibu. One of his early Ancient Roman purchases was “Lansdowne Herakles,” a marble statue, which he bought from the family of the Eighth Marquess of Lansdowne. He was intrigued by the provenance of certain works as well (“exploring their whys and wherefores is exciting — as exciting as collecting itself”), and he liked to think of himself as setting his own path of collecting and tastes. No matter what he said though, his collection shows that he was most interested in acquiring the tried and true, favoring Old Master works like Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew” as well as the decorative arts, collecting works like a Persian “Coronation Carpet,” Beauvais tapestries, furniture from France and England from the 18th century, and various chandeliers. For him, these decorative and historical works were a connection to the past, to people whom he could idealize.
“The drama, adventure and thrills one experiences when one succeeds in acquiring a superb chair, divan, desk, or other piece of furniture that is not only an outstanding work of art, but was once used by a King of France, a Marie Antoinette, or a Pompadour,” he wrote in his first book, “Europe in the Eighteenth Century,” 1949. “Believe me, history and its great figures do come to life.” (The irony that the people he most admired — namely aristocrats and royalty — were those who’d never worked a day in their lives, while he denied any charitable giving on the basis of a need for hard work seems to have been entirely lost on him.)
He wrote often about his collecting habits, in “Europe in the Eighteenth Century” as well as in “The Joys of Collecting,” 1965. Like many major collectors, part of the impetus for his collecting was for tax purposes. Getty was infamously frugal, requiring his guests at Sutton Place to use a pay telephone, and he once criticized an architect he’d hired for expensing a $17 electric pencil sharpener. And, although he said that his reticence to pay his grandson’s kidnapping ransom was out of the understandable desire to protect his other family members from being kidnapped (“I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren”), he eventually only paid $2.2 million of the ransom, the highest amount of money that would be tax-deductible. This forced his son, John Paul Getty, Jr., to pay the remaining $800,000 in the form of a loan with four percent interest. Getty’s art collecting was, in part, another instance of the lengths he would go to protect his money, despite his insistence in “The Joys of Collecting,” that it was mostly “a labor of love.”
In truth, Getty’s art collection was a bit of both. While he was alive, his personal collection reached around 600 pieces, which he kept both at the villa in Malibu as well as at Sutton Place and included works by Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, Renoir, Degas and Monet. He was fiercely competitive about his art, comparing himself frequently to Henry Clay Frick, whose collection today is housed in a museum overlooking New York’s Central Park. And, although he was famously stingy, he also proved to be incredibly charitable in instances of art and legacy, donating about $700 million when he died in 1976 (about $3.1 billion when adjusted for inflation) to his J. Paul Getty Museum Trust, an amount that comprised almost his entire estate. Today, the Getty Villa in Malibu, the Getty Museum in the Pacific Palisades, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Trust, which, as of 2017, has an estimated endowment of $6.9 billion, making it the world’s wealthiest art institute. (The assets of these Los Angeles-based institutions, including their artworks and real estate taken together, maintain a value of over $10 billion.)
Nearly every major artist of the past thousand or so years is represented in some form or another throughout Getty’s legacy institutions, and the collections only continue to grow. Just last year, the Getty Museum bought 16 drawings by Michelangelo, Lorenzo di Credi, Andrea del Sarto, Parmigianino, Rubens, Barocci, Goya, Degas, and others from a private British collection for around $100 million.
Today, the Getty Conservation Institute’s reference collection includes over 9,000 pieces. The Getty Research Institute has around 50,000 rare books, 27,000 prints and drawings, 30,000 original architectural drawings, and two million. With grant-based academic programs, a book publishing arm,
Getty Publications (an electronic database), public lectures, exhibition mounting, an educational artist program, and a massive research library, among many other initiatives and benefits, taken together, the institutions have become a vital part of the art world landscape.
The producer of “Trust,” the Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, intends to continue the show for two more seasons, the first having just ended in late-May. The Getty family isn’t happy about the idea. “It is ironic that you have titled your television series ‘Trust,’” wrote Marty Singer, the Getty’s family lawyer, in a letter to FX, the channel that broadcasts the show. “More fitting titles would be Lies or Mistrust, since the defamatory story it tells about the Gettys’ colluding in the kidnapping is false and misleading, and viewers rightly ought to mistrust it.” Singer, on behalf of the Getty family, also added that it’s “a cruel and mean-spirited defamatory depiction” of them.
Ariadne “Ari” Getty, the sister of John Paul Getty III, has become increasingly upset at the general portrayal of her grandfather and her family. “Business is always business, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a soft, kind, philanthropic, loving person behind it,” she recently told Town & Country.
In a way, her frustration is understandable. Here’s a man who has possibly done more for the preservation, education, and public display of thousands of years of prestigious art than perhaps anyone else in history. And yet, his love for art has come to be representative of his flaws — his purchasing of fine arts while his own grandson was being held captive, and his calculated decision to pay only part of the ransom while saddling his son with a four percent loan for the rest of it (effectively making money off of the kidnapping) strikes most as particularly cold and cruel. While he created one of the most significant empires of art the world has ever seen, especially in recent years, his legacy hasn’t been a pretty one. Some things, as perhaps he never realized, simply can’t be controlled.
This article appears in the July issue of Art+Auction.
Founder: Louise Blouin