May 2011

Artful Dodging

The recent return of an ancient statue acquired through dubious avenues was not the Getty Museum’s first brush with infamy

JASON
FELCH

RALPH
FRAMMOLINO

AFP/Getty Images

From Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, to be published May 24. Copyright © 2011 by the authors. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

In March 2011, the J. Paul Getty Museum sent its iconic statue of Aphrodite back to Italy, where some 25 years earlier it had been illegally dug up, broken into pieces and smuggled out of the country. The Aphrodite is the last of 40 looted masterpieces of ancient art the museum has returned to Italy since 2007. This concluded a scandal that exposed how the Getty and other leading U.S. museums had added stolen property to their collections. The episode damaged the Getty’s reputation and ended the career of its antiquities curator Marion True. But the pattern of misdeeds had far deeper roots with True’s predecessor Jiri Frel.

In June 1976, the employees of the Getty learned that its founder had died. A few days later came a big surprise: The oil tycoon had arranged a bequest that shook the art world. Getty had left his small, eclectic museum nearly $700 million in Getty Oil Company stock. With that, he had transformed it from a neglected provincial cultural outpost into the richest art institution in the world.

In the Pacific Palisades office of the head curator, 30 staffers raised a toast to the old man. People took turns hailing the Getty’s future and predicting untold acquisitions—so many, no doubt, that soon another new building would be needed to house them.

But at least one of those gathered foresaw trouble. “This sudden wealth is going to cause us a great deal of grief,” uttered Frel, then the museum’s antiquities curator.

Frel had been hired by Getty four years earlier. He was a refugee from Czechoslovakia, which he had fled in 1969 after a 20-year career as a noted classics professor at Charles University in Prague. He brought with him a refugee’s keen survival instincts and a healthy disregard for the rules.

With a pathological confidence, the fifty-something Czech paraded around the museum grounds like an emperor. When not bullying people with his intellect, Frel was delighting them with his old-world charm. Fluent in six modern languages and Latin, he was always ready with a Shakespearean quote or a naughty story. But now, he worried that, with Getty’s gift, his run might be threatened, as the bequest had one big string attached: It was to be controlled by a board of six trustees, most of whom possessed no knowledge of art. Getty had stacked the board with his accountant, a Getty Oil executive, the firm’s outside attorney and his sons Jean Ronald and Gordon.

Frel loathed them all. They were “American morons” who valued ancient art like pinkie rings—the bigger and shinier, the better. They didn’t understand that building a world-class antiquities museum required amassing a “study collection” of many small objects that would attract scholars from around the world. These shards, broken statue limbs and crumbling urns contained vital clues about the ancient world, but the board refused to buy them. In order to secure them, Frel would have to convince people to make charitable donations to the world’s richest museum.

He began by strong-arming antiquities dealers who wanted to keep good relations with the newly rich Getty. With every major sale, they would be forced to include a load of lesser pieces. One dealer donated a bust of the Greek historian Thucydides. Another contributed $9,000 worth of ancient silver and gold crowns. Still, the pace was too slow. Frel was determined to find another way.

That way appeared in the early 1980s, thanks to Bruce McNall. A natural salesman, McNall had converted a boyhood fascination with ancient coins into a thriving business. He threaded his way through Bel Air in the 1970s toting a briefcase of coins and a pitch about their investment potential. By the time Getty died, McNall had graduated to antiquities. He became co-owner of Summa Gallery, a showroom on Rodeo Drive.

“The plan was brilliant—and might even be legal. Hecht would keep his suppliers happy, McNall’s clients could actually make money on their donations and Frel could build his study collection without having to go through the Getty’s board of trustees.”

McNall’s supplier and silent partner was Robert Hecht, a middleman of the classical-antiquities trade whose swashbuckling career was legendary. Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold American museums and collectors some of the finest pieces of ancient art to emerge from the tombs and ruins of the Mediterranean. It was widely assumed virtually all of his inventory had been illegally excavated and smuggled, but at the time, that just gave his objects more cachet.

Their deal at Summa was strictly 50-50: McNall provided the Rolodex and handshakes; Hecht put in the merchandise. The arrangement worked beautifully with the museum-quality objects Hecht obtained. But what to do with the thousands of lesser objects Hecht’s suppliers insisted he also buy? McNall considered it all garbage. Then one day, while in Summa’s stockroom, the ancient bric-a-brac caught the eye of Jiri Frel. “You know, Bruce,” Frel purred, “We actually need these kind of things.”

What if McNall marketed the objects not as long-term investments but as charitable donations? Frel said he could guarantee clients they would receive generous write-offs when they donated them to the Getty. He knew a Manhattan dealer who would write appraisals backing up the inflated values reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

The plan was brilliant—and might even be legal. Hecht would keep his suppliers happy, McNall’s clients could actually make money on their donations and Frel could build his study collection without having to go through the Getty’s board of trustees. It also appealed to the triad of forces that drive Hollywood—greed, ego and instant gratification. For a test case, McNall turned to one of his best customers, Sy Weintraub, the former chairman of Panavision, whose claim to fame was as originator of the old Superman television series and the producer of the schlocky 1960s Tarzan movies. What he lacked in taste he made up for in business sense.

Weintraub was intrigued. So intrigued that by the end of the year, he was on the Getty books as the proud donor of 20 Etruscan terra-cotta roof ornaments, 6,000 coins and the head off a Greek grave marker. The value, second only to Getty’s bequest, earned him a tax deduction of $1.65 million. He then donated two 4th century B.C. frescoes cut from a tomb south of Naples, paying Summa $75,000 but telling the IRS they were worth $2.5 million. His gain: $1.2 million in tax savings— a return of more than 1,500 percent.

The donation scheme spread. Sources said donors included Michael Milken and his brother Lowell, Lily Tomlin, producer Alan Salke and powerhouse Hollywood attorneys Skip Brittenham and Ken Ziffren. Within four years, Getty books bulged with the names of more than 100 who had given 6,000 antiquities valued at $14.7 million to a museum that had no need for the help. It would come to be known as one of the largest museum tax frauds in history. [The Milkens’ attorney said Lowell donated nothing, and Michael gave several artifacts after verifying values with independent appraisals. Ziffren initially confirmed he and Brittenham made donations, using the “cash price” for values. On follow-up, he said a review showed neither attorney had purchased antiquities or claimed them on their taxes. Through a representative, Tomlin declined to comment.]

Frel prospered. He built a pool in the backyard of his Topanga Canyon home with $25,000 from McNall—a “loan” never repaid. Shortly after a BMW dealer earned a $761,000 tax credit for his donations to the Getty, Frel drove up in a new car from the dealership.

When the board hired a new CEO for the Getty in 1981, Frel decided he needed an assistant who could give the department a more presentable face—and be a buffer between him and the board.

He hired Arthur Houghton, a blue-blood heir to the Corning Glass Works fortune. Houghton was a former State Department analyst who had abandoned public service to follow his academic interest in antiquities. Three months after Houghton started at the Getty, he wandered into Frel’s office. Frel was out, but his attractive young German secretary, Renate Dolin, was there, typing at her desk. The stationery caught Houghton’s eye. It bore the name of a New York antiquities dealer.

“Can I ask what you’re doing?”

“Just typing up some appraisal forms for a new group of donations,” said Dolin. Museums don’t do appraisals for hoped-for acquisitions, Houghton knew—it was a conflict of interest. And they certainly don’t forge appraisals, as Dolin appeared to be doing. “Who asked you to do that?” he said.

“Jiri did.” According to Houghton, Dolin explained Frel routinely gave her a list of objects being donated and a value for each. She in turn typed them up on a dealer’s appraisal form and signed the dealer’s name. In his drawer, Frel had stationary from dealers around the world. [Dolin told the writers she was unaware of any donation scheme.]

When he saw Frel later, Houghton asked about the “procedure” for appraisals. Frel saw Houghton’s surprised look and said, “Arthur, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Trust me, you’ll understand when you have to do it yourself later.”

“I will not do it later,” Houghton replied with a thin smile, and walked away.

“You’re too moral!” Frel shouted at his back.

Houghton returned to his desk and jotted down notes on the conversation. It was a habit he had acquired during his years in the State Department. The notes had always proved useful when push came to shove, as it inevitably did.

Over the next several months, Houghton found himself scribbling after nearly every interaction with Frel. He thought he’d been hired to moderate Frel’s excesses, but he hadn’t imagined the extent: overpaying for art, unauthorized acquisitions, forged and inflated appraisals, none too subtle bribes.

Then Houghton learned something that convinced him to act. A contact in the antiquities trade told him the IRS was investigating Frel’s donation scheme as a possible conspiracy to commit tax fraud. The agency was looking at a donation of ancient amber jewelry from Gordon McLendon, a radio pioneer and one of McNall’s contacts. The IRS had determined the amber was worth $1.5 million at most, not the $20 million-plus McLendon claimed on his tax return.

When the feds threatened to charge McLendon, he agreed to pay $2.1 million in back taxes, and he was now making noises about telling the IRS everything if McNall didn’t reimburse him for the settlement.

The next day, Houghton flew to New York and had lunch with his personal attorney. He laid out in detail Frel’s activities and asked his attorney to write a legal opinion. With the legal memo in hand, Houghton returned to California and asked to talk with Frel privately. “When I’d talked to you about my concerns about the donations in the past, I was ignorant of the law,” Houghton began. “I’ve asked an attorney to tell me what laws a curator might be breaking by doing these things. It’s called conspiracy to commit tax fraud.”

“Then Houghton learned something that convinced him to act. A contact in the antiquities trade told him the IRS was investigating Frel’s donation scheme as a possible conspiracy to commit tax fraud.”

The blunt memo failed to convince Frel to come clean. “Honestly, Arthur, I had hoped to bring you in more,” Frel said. “I see that’s not going to be possible. I’ll have to reveal less of myself to you.”

When several other Getty donors had their appraisals questioned by the IRS, Houghton once again urged Frel to tell Harold Williams, the Getty’s new CEO. Frel said that he would consider it once the IRS cases were settled. But he wasn’t exactly contrite. “You have no idea what goes on in other museums, Arthur. They accept total junk, and the donor takes 20 times the value in his tax write-off. It’s the normal practice.”

At the Getty’s annual Fourth of July party, Houghton was introduced to John Walsh, Williams’ choice to be the new director of the Getty Museum. Walsh was an expert in Dutch paintings and a rising star in the art world. In an effort to be friendly, Walsh said to Houghton, “I hear things are going great guns in the department...Let’s have lunch.”

They chose a date in early August, just as things were at a breaking point with Frel. After they were seated, Houghton didn’t waste a moment. He carefully detailed how he’d uncovered Frel’s activities in recent months. Walsh seemed appropriately appalled. But three months later, Houghton had not heard back. Meanwhile, donations were coming in, and for some, Frel didn’t even bother with the formality of finding a “donor.”

It would take something even more serious to jolt Walsh into action. One afternoon, Houghton was in Walsh’s office to prepare for a meeting of the board’s acquisition committee, where each department would present what it hoped to acquire. As the men clicked through slides of proposed antiquities, a small marble Egyptian head flashed on the screen. “Stop there for a moment, John,” Houghton said.

“What is it?” Walsh asked.

“You need to know about this head. Jiri’s wife smuggled it into the country in her handbag.”

Houghton recounted driving Frel to the airport one day when the curator opened his carry-on bag and took out the Egyptian head. Frel explained that Faya, his wife, had brought it back from Switzerland. “I hope she declared it at customs,” Houghton said.

“No, she carried it in her handbag,” Frel chuckled. “I’d like you to propose it to the board next week while I’m away. Tell them it comes from the Vanderbilt collection.” [Faya (Frel) Causey denied smuggling the marble Egyptian head.]

Frel’s claim about it coming from the “Vanderbilt collection” was laughable, Houghton said. And the $80,000 purchase price Frel had recommended seemed far more than the piece was worth. This time, Walsh paid attention.

The next day, Walsh and Houghton met for more than three hours, during which Houghton brought Walsh up to date on Frel’s most recent transgressions. Walsh said he was thinking about a deal he could make with Frel to stop what he called the curator’s “fiddling.” The two decided to meet again the following day with Frel’s two other deputies.

One of those was Marion True, a PhD candidate Frel hired to take care of cataloging the antiquities collection. True had been a colleague of Houghton at Harvard and proved such a quiet, ambitious assistant curator one of her jealous colleagues dubbed her a self-seeking snake.

At the confidential meeting, True confirmed many of Houghton’s allegations. Later, in a private moment with Walsh, True said she felt Frel’s true motive had been to build the study collection and disguise the suspect origin of the objects, not line his own pockets. Walsh wondered aloud whether Frel might be relieved of his curatorial duties but kept on to look for antiquities, particularly statues from the archaic and classical period, which the young museum lacked. [True and Walsh declined to comment to the writers.]

By late 1983, word of Frel’s donation scheme and the IRS investigation had percolated up to Williams. An attorney and former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he immediately realized that the problems with Frel would not blow over. The Getty needed to investigate. He asked Bruce Bevan, an attorney with J. Paul Getty’s old law firm, Musick, Peeler & Garrett, to direct the internal probe. Bevan’s investigation was detailed in a disturbing confidential report.

When confronted by Bevan, Frel admitted forging 15 to 25 appraisals per year over five years, letting donors suggest the amount of the write-offs they desired. He also falsified museum records and repeatedly violated the Getty’s policy prohibiting the acceptance of donations from dealers. He said he had asked his secretary to forge not only appraisals but bills of sale from various dealers at prices of his choosing. Frel’s explanation—that it was to expedite the transactions—was weak.

In short, Bevan told Williams, the scheme involved “huge improper tax deductions” based on “deliberately excessive valuations by Frel.” But that was just the start. Bevan described “massive cash payments” McNall was said to have made to Frel and phony ownership histories that corrupted the scientific record—evidence that Frel was also involved in cases of smuggling. Yet Bevan was most troubled by Frel’s role in the recent purchase of a Herakles torso. Frel had convinced the Getty to pay $270,000 more than the dealer’s asking price, and it was not clear where that extra money had ended up.

In the report, Bevan concluded that the Getty Museum “cannot countenance such irregularities.” Yet Frel was not fired. Instead, the Getty found a way to keep him quiet and out of the country until the IRS investigation blew over. In late April 1984, Williams, Walsh and Bevan called Frel into Williams’ office and put him on paid leave pending further investigation. Not long after, Frel went home, packed a bag and caught a flight for Europe—leaving behind his position at the Getty and his wife, Faya, and two sons.

He continued to receive his regular salary for the next two years. Museum staff was told Frel was on sabbatical in Paris, and that was the last most of them ever heard of him. The true story of Frel’s ignominious departure was kept very quiet. Bevan’s final suggestion was that all of the documents “relating to Frel’s corruption” be gathered and removed from the building so they couldn’t be subpoenaed. With that, the cover-up appeared complete.

Authors’ note: This account is based on Houghton’s detailed notes of the events; Hecht’s journal detailing the scheme; confidential Getty documents, including Bevan’s 1984 report; and interviews with several participants.

Jason Felch is a Los Angeles Times investigative reporter; Ralph Frammolino, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is now a media consultant in South Asia.