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Rich man, poor man

J. Paul Getty was cold toward his flesh and blood but had a soft spot for his children of a different sort: his art collection.

February 20, 2011|By Ralph Frammolino

In the fall of 1973, a package arrived in a Rome newsroom. Delayed by an Italian postal strike, its contents had begun to spoil. Inside were a lock of red hair and a piece of rotting flesh. It bore a telltale freckle. The flesh was an ear belonging to the grandson of J. Paul Getty.

One of the richest men in the world, Getty had publicly refused to negotiate with the men who had kidnapped the younger Getty in Rome three months before. Now the oilman agreed to pay $2.2 million, the most he claimed could be deducted from his taxes as a theft loss. Getty lent the rest of the nearly $3 million ransom to his son, the teenager's father — at 4% interest. Released, the grandson called to say thanks. The oilman refused to come to the phone.

The story of the severed ear made the rounds again last week in the obituaries for J. Paul Getty III, the grandson, who died Feb. 5 at age 54 after spending the last half of his life paralyzed and nearly blind from a 1981 drug- and alcohol-induced stroke. Even in death, the grandson's travails were overshadowed by his infamous grandfather's reputation as a hard-hearted patriarch..

While his journals record tender feelings toward his five sons, Getty missed their weddings and was away on business for the funeral of his youngest , Timmy, who died in 1958 of complications from a brain tumor. "Funeral bill for Darling Timmy. A sad day…. Sent cable to Zone that Aminoil can have 50% of Eocene by giving us 50% of Burgan," Getty wrote in his diary. Two decades later, Getty's emotional aloofness reportedly contributed to the depression and death of his oldest son, George, a Getty Oil executive who stabbed himself and then swallowed barbituates and alcohol.

But Getty did prove to have a soft spot for his children of a different sort: his art collection.

Unlike his own flesh and blood, artworks of stone, marble and pottery moved the billionaire to open his pocketbook, again and again. Getty compared his weakness for buying art to an addiction. "The habitual narcotics user is said to have a monkey on his back," he wrote in his autobiography. "I sometimes feel as if I had several dozen gorillas riding on mine."

Getty's art habit developed when he was a budding tycoon traveling through Europe before World War II. He fancied 19th century French furniture and tapestries, Persian and Savonnerie carpets and Renaissance paintings — and bargain hunting.

He bought artworks the way he did oil leases, always looking for undervalued assets. Taking advantage of war fears in 1938, Getty bought Rembrandt's "Portrait of Martin Looten" for just $65,000 — less, he proudly noted, than the previous owner paid 10 years before.

Greek and Roman antiquities particularly entranced Getty with their power to transport him back in time. A student of ancient history, Getty read ancient Greek and Latin, could name every Roman emperor in order and often took side trips to archaeological sites on his business trips. He wondered aloud if he might be the reincarnation of Hadrian, the great Roman emperor, humanist, builder, arts patron and Epicurean devotee.

Getty personally ventured into the antiquities market, which was dominated by colorful characters. One of them was Robert Hecht, from Baltimore, who turned his back on a family department store fortune to peddle antiquities.

In 1955, Hecht sought out Getty at the Ritz Hotel in London. With the promise of acquiring some Roman portraits, Hecht lured the businessman back to his fleabag hotel near Piccadilly. Lying on Hecht's unmade bed were several marble busts from around the time of Christ. They included an intricately carved likeness of Julia Titi, the curly haired daughter of the Roman Emperor Titus. Getty eventually bought it for $3,300. (Hecht went on to become the trade's biggest middleman — and a controversial figure in future antiquities scandals.)

When Forbes magazine declared Getty the world's richest man two years later, the art offers came rolling in and Getty's art habit grew worse.

By then, he had formed a nonprofit museum at his Malibu ranch house so he could take tax write-offs as he stuffed some of the rooms with objects. He hired a small staff and allowed limited public viewing.

Getty dismayed his curator by refusing to bid on truly great pieces appearing on the postwar art market. Collectors such as Norton Simon stretched to acquire Van Goghs and Monets. Getty stooped for the less spectacular stuff, spending from $10,000 to $70,000. The collection grew, pushing the bigger pieces like the Lansdowne Herakles into the courtyard, where they were exposed to the elements.

Eventually Getty had to make a much bigger investment: a new museum.

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