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Unseen Artworks Embroil Getty Museum in Dispute

Times Staff Writers

In the basement of the J. Paul Getty museum in Malibu, there is a huge collection of antiquities that the public never sees. Thousands of Greek vases, terra-cotta figures, and bas reliefs fill shelf after shelf in the holding rooms. Some of the objects are beautiful; some are merely mundane. They have rested in quiet here for years, available only to the museum staff and occasional visiting scholars.

Most large museums have similar groups of objects. They are known as study collections, pieces of art and craftsmanship that lack the glamour of objects in the upstairs galleries. It is not surprising that the Getty, the world’s wealthiest museum, has one of the best. But this largely unseen collection has embroiled the museum in one of the most embarrassing episodes in its short history.

The study collection at the Getty was built almost entirely by its former curator of antiquities, a Czechoslovakian scholar named Jiri Frel. For years Frel more or less ruled the intellectual life inside the ersatz Roman villa that houses the museum. When Frel arrived in 1973 the museum had not received the full $2.8 billion that it enjoys today, and the collecting process had just begun.

Flamboyant and passionate, Frel acquired piece after piece for the main collection, sometimes paying millions for his discoveries but often finding bargains. At the same time he cajoled wealthy collectors into donating lesser artifacts by the crate load for his study collection downstairs. By all accounts, Jiri Frel quickly became one of the most successful curators of antiquities in the world.

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When Frel suddenly and mysteriously left his post in 1984, the museum gave no hint that something had gone wrong. Frel was said to have taken a paid sabbatical and would serve as a Getty researcher in Europe.

But now the previously unknown story of Jiri Frel is emerging. The Getty in recent weeks has admitted that Frel was removed from his position for what the museum describes only as “serious violations of the museum’s policies and rules regarding donations.”

A source involved in the museum’s investigation says the inquiry concluded that Frel arranged for inflated appraisals of artworks, enabling donors to claim exaggerated income tax deductions. Furthermore, it was concluded that Frel manipulated the museum’s acquisitions process to purchase artworks not authorized by the board of trustees, the source said.

The revelations could hardly have come at a worse time for the Getty. A new $100-million museum is being planned in Brentwood that will house several new collections and, the Getty hopes, serve as a symbol of its coming-of-age. Now, instead of dealing with the future, Getty officials are being hounded by questions from the past.

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Even worse for the Getty, the unfolding of the tale has been propelled by one of the most vitriolic feuds in museum history. The man who first revealed the charges against Frel is none other than Thomas P.F. Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and current editor of the cultural news magazine, Connoisseur.

Hoving, 56, left the Metropolitan 10 years ago. It should be noted that one of the more publicized events in Hoving’s administration involved a rancorous policy dispute between himself and two prominent curators, both of whom eventually resigned. One of those men was John Walsh, now the director of the Getty.

In the April issue of Connoisseur, Hoving described the Frel affair as the “museum tax scandal of the century.” Similar charges have been made in articles in the London Times, co-authored by Hoving and Geraldine Norman, a London Times arts reporter.

“It’s a rich and complicated tale of overweening opportunism, shoddy management, duplicity, fear, stupidity, and warped values,” Hoving wrote in a personal column in Connoisseur. “Heads will roll,” he predicted.

Hoving has not stopped there. He has also accused one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest art collectors of trying to deflect his attacks by offering to buy Connoisseur magazine. In his column Hoving said industrialist Norton Simon made the offer in hopes that such a deal would “persuade us to soft-pedal what we’d found.”

“Dumb stuff!” Hoving commented.

Simon, 80 years old and recovering from a serious illness, denies that any attempt was made to silence Hoving. In a telephone interview Simon characterized the Hoving story as “either fiction or fantasy.”

For its part, the Getty has remained officially silent and museum officials have refused to discuss the affair.

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In an interview, museum director Walsh declined to answer a half dozen questions about the nature of the charges against Frel or the possibility that others may have been involved. When finally asked if he could explain the acrid relationship between Hoving and the Getty, Walsh said: “I am either the world’s greatest gentleman or the biggest clod, but I shouldn’t say anything.”

Even in private, people at the museum will not discuss the Frel allegations, instead turning to Hoving.

“This is just another Hoving vendetta,” said one high museum official, who pointed to Hoving’s bitter dispute with Walsh at the Metropolitan.

One close associate of the museum contends that Hoving has been trying to undermine the Getty administration for many months. “He just resents the hell out of the Getty. Hoving is a rascal.”

As for the Frel affair, many of the details remain unknown. Frel himself is described by friends as living quietly in a Paris suburb. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

A Man of Passion

Associates and friends describe him as a man of high passions and personal anarchy; a man who loves ancient art and hates paper work. At his curator’s office in Malibu, mounds of unanswered letters and memorandums would pile higher and higher. Yet if a friend walked in--visiting scholars, wealthy donors and other collectors--there would always be time for talk. While driving, Frel would become so excited in conversation that he would take his hands off the wheel and wave them in the air, letting the car drive itself.

Originally Frel had been hired by J. Paul Getty himself to survey the antiquities collection that the billionaire oilman had collected piece by piece over several decades. After a study of the collection, his friends say, Frel told them he reported to Getty that he had good news and bad news. The good news: Getty had acquired a number of masterpieces. The bad news: he had also acquired a large number of fakes.

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Over the next months Frel quietly “de-accessioned” the fakes in the collection by returning them to the dealers. In doing so Frel won the confidence of the aging businessman and a job at the new Getty museum.

As the new curator of antiquities, it was Frel’s job to transform the old man’s haphazard collection of Greek and Roman art into something comprehensive. Almost immediately, there were problems.

“The trustees were only interested in high-quality pieces, the kind that show up behind a velvet rope,” said one associate who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “Jiri was interested in everything; he wanted it all, the big pieces and the little pieces. He wanted the stuff that was art and he wanted the stuff that was just archeology.”

Looking for Solutions

Soon, Frel discovered there were ways around the dilemma.

One technique was obvious: if you can’t buy what you want, get people to give it to you. Frel became well-known for his ability to drain the living rooms of wealthy collectors. “He cried for them; he whined for them,” said David Swingler, a Los Angeles archeologist and collector. “He would say to me, ‘Please, we have a Roman villa, we need things to fill it up.’ He was constantly asking for knickknacky things for the study collection.”

Frel’s success was phenomenal. In an 11-year period he attracted donations that the Getty valued at more than $12 million. Frel alone was pulling in more art works than entire staffs of curators at other museums. Some donors gave one or two pieces valued at $500. Others gave hundreds of works totaling more than $1 million.

By 1982 Frel had built one of the most comprehensive study collections in the nation, virtually without support from the trustees. Such a collection is valuable mainly to scholars trying to piece together the life of an ancient civilization or the development of artistic styles. But the main collection also had been filled out with the kind of acquisitions the trustees coveted: million-dollar showpieces that would build the Getty’s reputation.

In the same year Frel, then 60, hired an assistant, Arthur Houghton, to handle some of the administrative tasks he loathed. It was a fateful decision. Several months later Houghton went to director John Walsh with misgivings about Frel’s collecting techniques.

Walsh listened to the allegations and Houghton reportedly returned to work with Frel. According to the museum’s own written statement, Walsh was told of the improprieties in August, 1983, but did not inform the trustees until December, four months later. The reason for the delay is one of the questions Walsh refuses to answer.

No Time for Debate

Houghton, who has since resigned from the Getty, was reached in Washington. He said he did not wish to engage in a debate with Getty officials over their response to the charges.

In December, 1983, the trustees asked the law firm of Musick, Peeler & Garrett to conduct an internal investigation of Houghton’s suspicions. The investigation focused on two allegations: that Frel had lured donors to the Getty by arranging excessive valuations for their artworks, and that he bought study collection items without consent of the trustees. The resulting report has never been made public by the Getty, but according to a source familiar with it, both charges were generally substantiated. The report also quoted Frel as denying any improprieties.

After the report, Walsh recommended that the antiquities curator be removed from his position but kept on salary. Frel would be sent to Europe to do research. He would remain on the payroll until his resignation in December, 1986, but the Frel era at the Getty had ended.

The museum’s statement said the action “took into account the fact that he (Frel) was a distinguished scholar; that he was on the staff for many years; that he was responsible for the creation of the museum’s antiquities collection, which is generally regarded as one of high distinction and academic interest; and that there was no evidence of personal financial gain on his part.”

It is not known whether the Getty reported the findings to any law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, at the time. However, it was learned that while the IRS is now aware of the allegations, there is no active criminal investigation into Frel’s practices by the IRS office in Los Angeles. Moreover, Frel is in Europe, where he would be free from extradition on tax charges, IRS officials said.

Paying the Price

At the time Frel left, the Getty made no public announcement that any wrongdoing had taken place. Some supporters of the museum say there was good reason for the public silence. Frel’s only motive had been the glory of the museum. The disgrace produced by banishment to Europe was punishment enough.

These explanations have not satisfied Hoving. He also has claimed that Frel’s mistakes extend beyond the study collection to the masterpieces in the upstairs galleries. On several occasions, Hoving says, Frel purchased highly expensive artworks that now are believed to be fakes.

In London Times articles written by Hoving’s collaborator, Geraldine Norman, the suspect artworks are identified as a marble head of a warrior attributed to the Greek sculptor Skopas; an archaic Greek relief showing a warrior bandaging the head of a fallen companion, and a life-size statute of a Greek youth known as a kouros. All currently are on display in Malibu. The Getty never reveals the purchase price of its items but the total cost of these three works has been variously reported at $12 million.

In the interview with Walsh, the museum director said he was confident that the kouros was genuine. However, he conceded that the Getty’s own experts have doubts about the authenticity of the Skopas head and the archaic relief. “We are genuinely uncertain about both pieces,” he said, adding that all major museums have works that periodically undergo review as new scholarship becomes available.

The true extent of Frel’s wrongdoing remains unknown. A sampling of donors listed on the Getty’s tax returns were contacted by The Times. Most contended that their artworks were appraised independently by experts who had no connection to the museum. Several, however, affirmed that appraisals of their donations were provided by the museum. Such a practice is generally regarded as a violation of museum ethics.

Question of Value

One donor was Stanley Ungar of Valley Stream, N.Y., who gave the museum his family’s collection of gems. Ungar said in an interview that Frel arranged for an appraisal by Jerome Eisenberg, a Beverly Hills and New York art dealer. Eisenberg sent Ungar a copy of a formal appraisal that listed the value at $138,000. Unger said he never received a bill for Eisenberg’s services.

Later, the Internal Revenue Service challenged the appraisal and after protracted negotiations Ungar settled for a tax deduction of $89,000.

Jonathan Rosen, a New York collector, donated a life-size Etruscan statue to the Getty in 1982. He said he obtained on his own an independent appraisal of the gifts. But Rosen said that he knows first-hand that Frel arranged some appraisals for other people.

“I know this because he offered to give me an appraisal and he got appraisals for some of my friends,” Rosen said.

Richard Swingler of Malibu also said the Getty provided appraisals for his donations. “They sent an official and we got a sheet with the value on it,” said Swingler. He said the IRS had never challenged the appraisals for his donations.

In a telephone interview, Eisenberg said he frequently provided appraisals for donors who contributed art work to the Getty. While Frel may have arranged for the appraisal, it was the donor, not the museum, who paid. If donors did not receive a bill from him, it was likely a clerical error.

A Point of Argument

He also said his appraisals were accurate. “Any (appraisals) I made was something I could defend with honesty,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg said he and Frel sometimes argued over appraisals. “When he couldn’t get a sufficient mark-up, he’d go to someone else.

“In his own Byzantine, European way (Frel) was trying to build up a collection,” Eisenberg said. “All Frel ever did was try to get people an advantage on their taxes, to get them a maximum appraisal.”

Sherman Lee, the former director the Cleveland Museum of Art, says the involvement of curators in appraisals is regarded as unethical because it places the curator in a conflict of interest. “A curator should not be put in that position because a donor wants maximum value in exchange for the gift.”

It is also not clear how seriously the museum regards the allegation that Frel deceived the trustees in making purchases of artworks from dealers. According to one official close to the museum, Frel worked this way: Frel would purchase a display-quality piece from a dealer valued at $50,000. But, at Frel’s suggestion, the dealer would bill the museum $60,000 for the piece and actually send to the museum two artworks: the first piece plus a second, lesser piece for the study collection. The trustees paid the higher price without knowing they were getting two pieces instead of one.

Eisenberg said he was familiar with such practices and contends they are not uncommon in the museum world. In many cases, he said, the dealer would actually throw in the second, minor piece for free as a gesture of good will.

‘Twisting and Turning’

“Jiri was doing everything he could, twisting and turning, to get his collection,” Eisenberg said. “My God, I remember once he found a horde of lead fish that he wanted, a votive group. He went around asking people for a hundred dollars to buy one fish and he kept doing it until he got them all. He wanted them for the museum and the trustees wouldn’t buy them.”

Eisenberg, who regards himself as a close friend of Frel, said he has heard nothing from the former curator since he left for Paris. None of his friends here seems to know what Frel is doing or whether the famous exuberance has survived the ordeal.

“Jiri probably went to the extreme,” Eisenberg said. “Other curators would not have done it. But it’s also true that other curators would not have built that museum.”

Meanwhile, the feud shows no signs of dying. Hoving denies he is waging any vendetta, but merely plying his new trade as a journalist. He promises more revelations in the May issue of Connoisseur.


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