A Little Museum in Malibu Could Throw the Art Market for a Loop

On a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, fifty miles north of Disneyland and just across the street from the Seaside Shanty restaurant, stands the re-creation of an Imperial Roman villa, vintage first century B.C. The fastidiously faithful reproduction houses thirty-eight galleries of art works, including paintings and sculptures ranging in quality from the exquisite to the indifferent. If such a collection threatens little future challenge to the Louvre or the Metropolitan, for rank among the greatest art museums in the world, it seems sure to become the greatest, anyway, that money can buy, once a small legal complication over its $700-million endowment is dispensed with by the California courts.

Such wealth promises to make the J. Paul Getty Museum of Malibu an awesome power in the art world. To museum directors and private collectors everywhere, the prospect of this power seems especially ominous at a time when the international art market hardly needs a fres h infusion of capital to keep prices soaring. Today, as everyone knows, a Cézanne is sounder than a dollar, and art like gold, though it earns no interest, is being stored away as a hedge against inflation. Knoedler-Modarco, a kind of art mutual fund, has close to $20 million in paintings in vaults, and its stock is traded on the Geneva Exchange. Another art consortium, Artemis, speculates mainly in O.M.’s (old masters) and is traded in Amsterdam. The British Rail Pension Fund has sunk $40 million in sculpture and paintings, including Renoir’s Portrait of Cézanne and Picasso’s Blue Boy.

The booming U.S. art market is recording annual sales estimated at $5 billion to $6 billion and growing approximately 20 percent a year. Happily for dealers, art prices seem spurred on equally by either a sagging or a surging stock market. When the Dow Jones is down, masterpieces still look like a safe bet for long-term appreciation. When the Dow moves up, wealthier investors te nd to cash in some of their capital gains and splurge on art. As a result, Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York saw its 1977 fall sales shoot up 53 percent. This spring the auction house installed a theater-style revolving stage so the bidding could proceed even faster.

To date, the Getty Museum’s effect on the old-master market has been more in-direct than direct since its staggering inheritance was first announced. “We’ve had less influence ourselves than have the people buying in fear of us,” claims Burton Fredericksen, the museum’s curator of paintings. He cites several recent instances of paintings being bought defensively against the Getty, including Charles Wrightsman’s purchase of Rubens’s Self-Portrait with Helena Fourment and Their Child for $3.5 million, now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and El Greco’s Portrait of Giacomo Bosio, bought by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, reportedly for $3 million.

The pervasive concern ove r Getty’s future buying power, as reflected by such prices, greatly disturbs the museum’s board of trustees. “We don’t want to inflate the art market,” emphatically vows Harold Berg, the president of Getty Oil Co., who also serves as chairman of the Getty Museum board. Speaking more the language of commerce than connoisseurism, he insists: “The sensational European press warns that the Getty Museum could run up prices. But I don’t think we have any plans to add new lines.” Berg also makes it clear that the board’s first priority is to enlarge the museum, possibly building a big new structure in Los Angeles. “We’re not going to make acquisitions and put ’em in the basement.” Some of the money, too, could be spent on paintings and sculpture sent out on loan to other museums around the U.S. or to organize a comprehensive art library. “In any case,” says Berg, “we plan to use money as judiciously as possible.”

Technically, Berg and his boa rd could find their plans affected by a nettlesome suit brought by granddaughter Anne Getty to establish a testamentary trust, which would give Getty’s descendants, and not the trustees, control of the estate. In either case, however, the income would still go to the museum. The district court has already ruled that Anne Getty had no right to contest a will in which she was not even named, but she is appealing and the litigation could drag on for years. Meanwhile, the museum is skimping along on its original $40-million endowment, plus sporadic court-approved partial distributions of the dividends (presently $19.2 million a year) on the four million shares of Getty Oil stock (just split four for one with a current market value of $660 million) bequeathed to the museum by the man Fortune named as the richest American back in 1957. However, once the case is settled and the will probated, the museum stands to have an annual income of between $40 million and $50 million—of w hich 85 percent will have to be spent currently for the museum to retain its tax-free status as a private operating foundation.

No matter how discreetly the Getty trustees talk, the specter of these resources is magnified for the art world at large by a couple of basic facts of life. In the first place, this is a time when virtually all other museums are hard pressed for acquisition funds. Kenneth Donahue, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who can already feel his Malibu neighbor breathing down his neck, says: “In effect, the Getty will have first refusal on everything that comes on the market.” In the second place, there is, of course, an ever more acute shortage of truly great art being traded. The demand for masterpieces is insatiable, and the supply is down to a trickle, especially now that most European governments classify them as national treasures and ban their export. When a great collection is broken up under the auctioneer’s hammer—as with the old masters, medieval ivories, and other priceless piece s put together by Robert von Hirsch (page 82)—all the curators, dealers, and speculators rush in to bid. “There won’t be a God in heaven if the Getty people aren’t there,” says John Marion, president of Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, whose company is handling the sale.

Cordiality vs. competition

The chance to play the role of an economic god in the art market now falls to Stephen Garrett, the director of the Getty. Paradoxically, this heady prospect looms also as an enormous problem, for it requires him to try to reconcile objectives that seem hopelessly at odds: effectively using his huge resources without wildly bloating art prices, and maintaining cordial relations with other museums, while satisfying his own curators’ hunger to outbid all competitors for the most rare and costly works of art to be found.

For Garrett personally, the problem is compounded by the fact that he is a latecomer to the art world, with no previous museum experience. He was a London architect whom J. Paul Getty originally engaged in 1967 as a consultant on the renovation of an Italian vacation villa he had just bought. Later, during the construction of the Malibu villa, Garrett became Getty’s liaison man, shuttling between England and California to make certain that the billionaire oilman’s concepts were carried out by the builders. When the museum opened in 1974, Getty persuaded Garrett to abandon his architecture practice and stay on to run it.

As a neophyte director, Garrett is understandably skittish about discussing the museum’s future plans. Practically any announced expansion program, he feels, would risk sounding aggressive or pretentious. So what little the director does say publicly these days is designed to ease the fear or the envy of the more hallowed museums in America—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, whose $140-million endowment used to be the largest, or the Cleveland Museum of Art ($110 million). “To acquire great art without raising havoc in the art market is a huge challenge,” Garrett sighs.

To this, the dry retort of most museum directors would be: to be able to acquire pretty much whatever you fancy in the art world is a huge advantage. And they might cite, for example, what recently happened to the fourth-century bronze believed to be the only existing work of the Greek sculptor Lysippus. The footless Olympian figure had in effect been limping around the art markets of Europe in search of a museum ever since it was dragged up from the bottom of the Adriatic by Italian fishermen in 1963. It was not that curators questioned the statue’s authenticity. They lusted for the Lysippus, since it was clearly either the work of Alexander the Great’s master sculptor or from his school. But the asking price was simply too high. Last summer the Getty Museum purchased the Lysippus from the art consortium Artemis. And in April when the statue finally arrived, after tax-saving stops in Boston and Denver,* it was welcomed in typical Hollywood style. THREE MILLION DOLLAR MAN ON VIEW IN MALIBU, headlined the Los Angeles Times, undervaluing the ancient Greek fellow by $900,000. Now encased in a temporary plexi-glass cylinder with a constant humidity of 30 percent to keep him from catching the fatal green “bronze disease” (a rapid chemical deterioration that eats away bronze in the presence of moisture), the footless Greek athlete has become an overnight Getty Museum star.

Art vs. entertainment

Although rival museum men are too tactful to come right out and say so, they tend to regard the colonnaded Getty as a combination Fort Knox and Roman circus. “All that money could pose a problem,” says Sherman Lee, head of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the dean of American museum directors. “They’re going to be busy little beavers.” Lee, who bristles at even such mild museum commercialism as the touring King Tut exhibit, points to the danger of slipping across the narrow line between art and entertainment. “The Getty Museum,” he says, “is indeed what a Roman villa looked like. I think it’s kind of fun. But they’ll have to remember there’s a happy medium to strike between business and art.”

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Met and now ABC’s new artcaster, who will be covering the von Hirsch sale from London, is quick to point to yet another problem challenging Director Garrett and his staff. He warns that the huge inheritance of the Getty does not automatically guarantee it great status as a museum. “A certain amount of art will gravitate toward Malibu,” he says. “But there have always been groups that came into the art market with enormous wealth.” William Randolph Hearst, Hoving notes, had a tremendous amount of money, yet “he gathered together a pretty crummy collection.” Hearst also failed to endow his castle 200 miles up the coast in San Simeon. Visitors therefore have to buy tickets through Ticketron to see his collection, whereas admission to the Getty Museum is free.

Californians, of course, view the Getty quite differently than do art commentators and competing museum directors. They think the $16-million imported marble copy of the Villa dei Papiri—the palace in Herculaneum where Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, purportedly lived—fits their idea of a museum just fine. They can sit in the shade of an Italian pomegranate, bask in the topiary gardens beside the shimmering 220-foot aquamarine reflecting pool, stroll past the inner peristyle court (patio to them), through the atrium, and up to galleries, sexy as a bordello, with red, blue, and green damask-padded walls. “Gettyland,” they call it. “How much are the rides?” they telephone to ask.

This is just as the Old Fox of the Oil Patch wanted things to be. “I would like every visitor to feel as if I had invited him to come and look about and feel at home,” wrote Getty. He abhorred musty old museums, but never saw the cheery premises he built to house his own collection. From the beginning, he insisted that the Villa dei Papiri (so named because of the carbonized papyrus scrolls found there) be constructed with as much fidelity as possible to the partially excavated original at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Rare marbles were transported from extinct Roman quarries. The intricate mosaic floors were precut by Italian masons. Even the ancient root traces, found in the volcanic mud covering the villa, were studied so that the museum herb garden would duplicate the one kept by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who, as the richest Roman and an avid art collector, captivated Getty. Inevitably, however, a few mo dern embellishments had to be added, such as the 150-car parking garage under the reflecting pool, a subterranean liquid-fertilizer injection system, and an electronic-alarm network to alert guards should any of the Rubenses, Raphaels, or Cenni di Francescos be pulled off the earthquake-resistant walls.

“Fire in the belly”

Director Garrett agrees with founder Getty’s philosophy that this museum should not merely be serious and scholarly. “The important thing,” he says, “is how deep, permanent, and satisfying the experience is for those who come.” Garrett has used his own cultured Cambridge voice to record the tape cassettes that can be rented as a substitute for guided tours. His breezy running commentary is punctuated with frequent informal injunctions of “now turn off your machine.” He recognizes that “the threshold of pain for most people with art is pretty near the surface. Here, at least, they can whip out into the gardens for a respite. People like a museum where they can escape.”

But just as Garrett himself cannot escape the envy of much of the art world, so also—within the walls of the Getty—he cannot escape the zeal (or what he calls “the fire in the belly”) of his three aggressive and acquisitive curators who are responsible for improving and expanding the museum’s collections. “Getty chose the curators and he chose brilliantly,” Garrett adds. “That’s not to say I don’t find them intolerable. They keep saying unless we buy it today, it may never come on the market again.”

Gillian Wilson, the curvy young curator of decorative arts and a striking example herself, points to a stack of manila folders on her desk containing background on the most prized works being offered for sale. “That’s my greedy pile,” she smiles—even though the Getty collection of ornate seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French furniture, carpets, tapestries, clocks, and chandeliers already rivals those at the Met and Frick. She candidly admits that the fun of being a curator is opening crates. “And we’re going to get lots of crates,” she coos.

While Getty was alive, Gillian used to bring him photographs of the things she wanted to buy. “He was busy. He was phlegmatic. Then suddenly there was the flick of a smile, and you knew he was pleased,” she recalls. “We curators were the children who could make his dreams come true.”

With much the same sense of personal intimacy, Jiri Frel, the museum’s spirited Czech curator of antiquities, came to know and work with Getty. Today Frel recalls that when he had his job interview in 1972 Getty was mesmerized by the Lysippus bronze, which kept eluding him because he wouldn’t quite meet the price: “I went to Getty’s mansion. First we had a normal talk. Then he put in front of me a picture of the Lysippus. Next, several more pictures. I put my arm around Getty’s shoulder. Getty put his arm around my shoulder. For five minutes we were not Getty and a little archaeologist, but two people who loved a work of art. ‘All right,’ I told him. I take the job.’” The memory of this perhaps explains why Frel felt compelled to buy the famous statue after Getty’s death. He has also acquired 160 other pieces of sculpture since he came to the museum.

There were times when Frel, with his Czech charm, succeeded in pushing Getty into a purchase. One such was the case of the fourth-century-B.C. Elgin Throne, so called because it was brought from Athens by Lord Elgin, the British diplomat-collector famed for the sculptures he removed from the Parthenon. Getty did not want to buy it, but Frel pushed him right into the massive Hymettian marble seat. “See how comfortable it is,” he insisted. Getty agreed and bought it.

Paintings are the weakest part of the whole Getty collection—”the stepchild of the family,” as the curator of paintings, Burton Fredericksen, calls them. But Getty often pointed out that he was an art enthusiast, not an expert trying to establish a great collection. He purchased only paintings that pleased him—mainly the work of baroque and Renaissance artists. Further limiting his selection, he hated buying at auctions and disliked setting record prices. But sometimes he lucked out. One of the best-known paintings in the museum is the Holy Family, a work of Raphael that Getty bought in 1938 for $200 as a copy, simply because he liked it. Later authenticated as the probable original, it is now valued at more than a million dollars.

Waiting in Forest Lawn

Since Getty’s death, Fredericksen has made a few acquisitions. He bought Gentile da Fabriano’s Coronation of the Virgin. “The Louvre wanted it,” he said, “but couldn’t afford it, so the French government let it leave the country.” He also purchased Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Man, which won’t arrive in Malibu until completing its sales-tax-saving tours of other museums. Fredericksen is besieged, of course, with offers from dealers all over the world, who now regard the Getty as their prime potential customer. “Nevertheless, we have missed out on some fine paintings bought by other museums,” complains Fredericksen, whose naturally acquisitive instinct is going to be hard to contain.

Despite the assurance of Board Chairman Berg that his museum will not seriously inflate the art market, the long-term impact of the Getty can hardly fail to be dramatic. In the meantime, up in their splendid Roman villa overlooking the Pacific, Stephen Garrett and his staff await the imminent arrival of the man who made it all possible. J. Paul also willed that he be interred on the museum property. But even this request ran into temporary legal complications, since Malibu is not zoned for cemeteries, and benefactor Getty has been kept waiting at Forest Lawn.

*Under California law, purchases are subject to a sales tax unless “used” out of state for ninety days.

Sidebar: A Treasured Collection Up for Auction

Over recent years, the mounting pressure of estate taxes has driven more and more great works of art to find refuge in museums as gifts, rarely ever to go on sale again. Further depleting the art market has been the personal desire of many avid connoisseurs, like J. Paul Getty, to turn their collections into permanent memorials to themselves. But a notable exception to this latter fashion was Robert von Hirsch, a refugee German leather manufacturer. “Art has to live. Art has to be loved. I want people to love and fight for my things just the way I did,” the ninety-four-year-old von Hirsch told a friend shortly before he died at his home in Switzerland last November. As a result, the most valuable collection to be auctioned in this century will go on sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet in London, starting on June 20. There is then certain to ensue a bitter piece-by-piece battle for von Hirsch’s old master and Impressionist paintings and drawings, his medieval enamels (including an arm ornament that probably belonged to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa), ivories and bronzes, and eighteenth-century Continental furniture. “The dispersal is a rare event one dreams about,” says Eugene Thaw of Artemis, one dealer who admits he will be in the thick of the bidding.

Sotheby’s, naturally, has done everything possible to promote the sale. Four elaborate catalogues with 230 color plates and 400 black-and-white pictures were prepared to sell for $88 a set. A series of pre-sale shows of the von Hirsch collection were organized in Frankfurt, Zurich, and London. A travel agency arranged special package tours to London for the auction. And most important of all, the fact that the collection is coming from Switzerland, which makes no patrimonial claims on national treasures gathered within its borders, was publicized to every museum in the world. In all, the 608 lots taken from the von Hirsch town house in Basel are expected to bring over $15 million at the seven-day sale. Bidding on the Branchini Madonna alone, painted in 1427 by Giovanni di Paolo, could go as high as $2 million.

Collections of such value are usually associated with well-known names and fortunes such as Rockefeller, Morgan, or Mellon. But von Hirsch was not enormously wealthy; he simply possessed extraordinary taste and knowledge. The renowned art historian Bernard Berenson once commented that Robert von Hirsch was one of only three collectors he had ever met who actually knew about the things they were collecting. (The other two were Belgian financier Adolphe Stoclet and his wife, Suzanne.)

Von Hirsch began his collecting in Germany. Initially he bought finely bound and inscribed first editions of books. But after befriending the director of the Städel Art Institute in Frankfurt, Georg Swarzenski, whom von Hirsch always credited with imbuing in him a feeling for quality, he began buying paintings, starting with the not-yet-popular Postimpressionists. His first purchase, in 1907, was Toulouse-Lautrec’s Red-haired Woman in a White Jacket, which is expected to bring at least $250,000 in the auction. Soon he added Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh, Seurat, Daumier, and Renoir. Then during a short period in the 1920’s and 1930’s—taking advantage of sales from the Hohenzollern collection in Sigmaringen, the Guelph Treasure in Brunswick, and the Hermitage in Leningrad—he assembled his unrivaled private collection of medieval art. He also bought paintings and drawings by the old masters: Rembrandt, Veronese, Raphael, El Greco, Tiepolo, and Dürer (including a rare watercolor).

When the Nazis came to power, von Hirsch, a Jew, bribed them—or presented the German nation with Cranach’s Judgement of Paris, as it was officially stated—into letting him flee with his collection otherwise intact (the Cranach was returned to him after the war). Settling in Switzerland, von Hirsch married the sculptress Martha Dreyfus-Koch, and his collection began to reflect her preference for such twentieth-century painters as Modigliani and Matisse. When his wife died in 1965, von Hirsch stopped collecting altogether, instead devoting his passion for perfection to his garden. “There is no reason why my collection should go on,” he said. “It is only what I liked.”

With additional research by Jane Mull.