J. Paul Getty was one of America’s most successful oilmen who was, if anything, an even more successful art collector. Getty acquired a number of oil companies before discovering and mining major oil deposits in Saudi Arabia, a feat which made him for some years the richest living American. Getty then used his fortune to assemble one of the world’s greatest collections of art and antiquities, a collection that today forms the core of the Getty Villa and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Jean Paul Getty was born in Minneapolis in 1892. His father, George Getty, was an insurance-agent-turned-wildcatter, and J. Paul grew up wealthy. Sent to Oxford by his father, J. Paul became a committed Anglophile—indeed, he spent the last 25 years of his life in a 16th-century Tudor estate near Guildford. After college, the younger Getty returned to the States, where he worked in his father’s oil fields before striking out on his own. He made his first $1 million at age 24.
Despite his son’s manifest talents, George never quite trusted him. J. Paul was a serial womanizer—“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure,” he proclaimed—and George worried that the string of hasty marriages and casual divorces (three by the time George died in 1930) would destroy the family business. J. Paul received just $500,000 of his father’s $10 million estate.
Luckily for J. Paul, the Great Depression was a buyer’s market, and even a diminished inheritance could go a long way toward acquiring cash-poor businesses. Getty began systematically acquiring assets. He started with oil companies: Pacific Western, Tidewater, Skelly. Then he bought Manhattan’s Hotel Pierre; later he set up a realty company. During the Second World War, the Navy asked him to take over and turn around Spartan Aircraft, an aircraft-parts supplier; he did, and after the war made it a mobile-home manufacturer.
The majority of Getty’s fortune came from an investment he made in 1949. Getty obtained a lease from King Ibn Saud to drill on a sandswept tract of barren land between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In exchange for $9 million up front and $1 million annually, Getty purchased exclusive mineral rights for 60 years. Four years and $18 million of sunk costs later, Getty struck oil. The wells produced such quantities that, by 1957, Fortune placed Getty’s net worth somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion. “A billion dollars isn’t what it used to be,” Getty quipped, but it did not change the fact that he was now the wealthiest citizen in the land.
After his success in Saudi Arabia, thousands of unsolicited requests for money poured in every week. They grated on him, not least because he had little use for what he considered soft-headed humanitarianism. “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,” he wrote in one of his many articles on wealth and business. “But a hard-eyed appraisal of the situation convinces me this is not the case. . . . However admirable the work of the best charitable foundation, it would accustom people to the passive acceptance of money.”
He was similarly suspicious of higher education. He was once approached by several members of the Rockefeller family, who urged him to make a large contribution and suggested that he consider giving to an institute of higher education. Getty sat silently for a moment. Then he burst into a tirade, demanding to know why the Rockefellers had not expelled the socialists from the University of Chicago.
If charitable giving could do little to remedy poverty and was a dubious way to promote learning, to Getty’s mind it still had one distinct advantage: it could help preserve the artistic achievements of Western civilization. Philanthropy provided the means by which his private collection could become a public resource, which was precisely what Getty hoped to do with it. “As I learned in my youth,” he wrote, “a gift—whether to the public or an individual—is something given of one’s own volition and without strings attached. Otherwise, it is no longer a gift but a business transaction. And if I had wanted to do business with my collection, I would have gone all-out and sold it off.”
A serious art collector since the 1930s, Getty had a good command of art history and criticism. He wrote a history of 19th-century Europe and was fluent in German, French, and Italian. He could speak passable Arabic, Greek, Russian, and Spanish, and he was able to spot-read Latin and ancient Greek. His was disciplined in his collecting, restricting himself largely (but not exclusively) to a few categories: Greek and Roman marbles and bronzes, Renaissance paintings, 16th-century Persian carpets, and 18th-century French furniture and tapestries. He owned three of the "Elgin Marbles" and acquired the "Lansdowne Herakles," a first-century A.D. Roman sculpture that was a personal favorite of the Emperor Hadrian.
Getty had exhibited some of his art in his California mansion, but in 1968 he decided to house it in a permanent museum. He told his trustees: “I refuse to pay for one of those concrete-bunker type structures that are the fad among museum architects—nor for some tinted-glass-and-stainless-steel monstrosity.” Getty also insisted that his museum have free admission and free parking. (The museum continues to offer free admission but has reversed Getty’s latter commitment.) He followed its construction closely, even once berating his architect for the unauthorized purchase of a $17 electric pencil sharpener.
The original Getty Museum, now the Getty Villa in Malibu, was completed in 1974. A reproduction of a Roman villa, it is considered a masterful reproduction of classical architecture. Getty, aged 82 and in poor health when the building opened, never saw it complete. On his death in 1976, he left most of his estate to the museum, and after a nine-year probate fight (which included the 1984 sale of Getty Oil to Texaco for $10 billion), it became the best-endowed museum in the world. In 1997, the J. Paul Getty Trust opened a second facility, the Getty Center, at a cost of $1.3 billion. With stunning views of Los Angeles, this Brentwood museum houses the collection’s non-antiquarian holdings, as well as a research library, conservation laboratories, sculpture gardens, and educational facilities.
J. Paul Getty was haughty (“One is very nearly always let down by underlings,” he often said), cheap (visitors to his estate had to use a pay phone), and cruel (when a grandson was kidnapped, he paid only as much ransom as was tax-deductible: $2.2 of the $17 million). But his great philanthropic achievement aspired to something nobler. “In learning about ancient Greek and Roman art,” Getty wrote, “one cannot help but also learn about the civilizations and the people who produced the art. This will unquestionably serve to broaden the individual’s horizons and, by increasing his knowledge of past civilizations, greatly aid him in knowing and understanding his own.”
~ Martin Morse Wooster