It's Oil in the Family as Two Museums Fueled by Gettys Strike It Rich in the Search for Great Art

updated 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In his long heyday, J. Paul Getty used his status as the richest man in the world to manipulate both people and markets. Nine years after the reading of Getty's will, he seems to be continuing his favorite pastime from beyond the grave. The setting has changed from oil rigs to the genteel confines of a small art museum in Malibu. But Getty's petulant decision to leave the bulk of his wealth—about $700 million—to his fledgling J. Paul Getty Museum gives his name nearly as much clout today as it had during his lifetime. The endowment, now worth $2.3 billion, makes the Getty the world's richest museum. With a budget twice as large as that of New York's famed Metropolitan Museum, the Getty must spend an unbelievable $100 million a year—almost $2 million a week—to keep its nonprofit tax status. Last month unloading all that bounty suddenly became just a little more involved, thanks to some rival philanthropy from another source—also named Getty.

In 1982, when the Getty Museum came into its main inheritance, the art world flew into a frenzy. Particularly in England, where the sagging economy and lenient export laws have created a buyer's market, visions of Getty acquisitions had angry curators warning that national treasures would soon be crated up and shipped to Malibu. In fact, since 1981, the Getty has bought and removed 55 works from Britain. "Plunder of a Nation" screamed one headline after the museum bought seven drawings by old masters for $9.2 million from a private British collection. Apparently undaunted, the Getty last April paid $10.4 million, the highest price in history for a single painting, for a British-owned work by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.

Lately the name Getty has taken on a friendlier meaning overseas, thanks to Eugene Paul Getty, also known as Paul Jr. It all began last August, as the Manchester City Art Gallery struggled to raise money to match the Getty Museum's $2.4 million bid for a 14th-century crucifixion painting attributed to the Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna: Paul Jr. kicked in $500,000 to the cause—and the crucifixion scene went to Manchester. Four weeks ago Paul Jr. abruptly upped his ante substantially by announcing the largest gift in history, $63 million, to the venerable institution that had been left out of his father's will: the British National Gallery. The reclusive Getty, 52, tartly explained to the press in a statement, "None of the American galleries need my help, least of all the J. Paul Getty Museum."

In a way, it makes sense for the Getty millions to wind up on both sides of the Atlantic art market. Getty Jr. lives alone in Britain just as his father did during his last years, and Paul has lavished money on causes for underdogs ranging from coal miners to handicapped children. But the history of the combative Getty family holds stronger clues as to why Getty Jr. may want to pit his cash against his father's pet cause. Getty Sr. rarely paid attention to his five sons, and when he did, conflicts were frequent. He deplored Getty Jr.'s hippie life-style (and drug associations) in the '60s and criticized his son Gordon's efforts in the oil business. Though Getty Jr. lives well enough on the $110 million annual income from a family trust that springs from Getty Oil, Getty Sr. socked it to all his kids by leaving his personal wealth to the museum, not to them.

Getty Jr. has had other quarrels with his family. When his son Paul III overdosed on drugs in 1981, Getty Jr. refused to pay his former wife Gail Harris for the hospital bills until a court suit forced a settlement. In 1983 Getty Jr. helped initiate a suit to challenge his brother Gordon's control of the family trust. Gordon, answering through a court memorandum, contended that Getty Jr. was "long believed to be a registered drug addict in England." One personal tie to the family remains for Paul Getty. When Claus von Bülow finished his own business in court, he spoke of plans to work for an "eleemosynary institution." Von Bülow, who handled public relations for Getty Sr. in the '60s, has just signed on as an assistant to Getty Jr.

These days Gordon Getty speaks in kind terms of his brother. "Paul's gift to the National Gallery is good for England and good for the art world," he says. "Whether it is a competitive gesture or not, Paul deserves a round of applause." Getty Museum Director John Walsh claims to share that view. "It's marvelous that there is yet another Getty doing things for the benefit of the public," he says.

In fact Walsh, who is highly respected as a curator, insists that looting foreign treasures will never be a goal. "The Getty doesn't try to winkle things off the wall that aren't for sale," he says. "When something is part of the patrimony of a country, we're going to make sure that our colleagues have the opportunity to keep it there." Right now Walsh's major concern is the building of a $100 million new Getty Museum complex on 742 acres in L.A.'s ritzy Brentwood area. Around 1990, when the structure by the noted architect Richard Meier is complete, it will house, among other things, a half-million-volume library, an artwork conservation lab and an information computer network.

The mood is peaceful at the current home of the Getty Museum, a dazzling white mansion (modeled after a Roman villa) on a cliff above the Pacific. But visitors can see signs of the furor caused by this quiet place: In the building's 36 galleries, discreet labels under many paintings read "New Acquisition." With his new funds, Walsh has rounded out Getty's quirky personal collection, which some called second-rate. Already well-supplied with Greco-Roman art and French furniture, Walsh has added 144 rare illuminated manuscripts (one of the world's finest private collections), 20,000 photos from nine of the world's best collections and rare paintings by old masters. "When this collection moves into the new museum," he says, "there won't be any talk of second-rate." You can bet that's just what Paul Getty—Senior, that is—wanted.

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