A judge has set today as the deadline for the house occupied by industrialist Armand Hammer at the time of his death to be turned over to the Los Angeles woman who inherited it when Hammer’s wife, Frances, died last year.
The transaction is occurring only after a confrontation over the attempted removal of belongings from Hammer’s luxury Westwood home Dec. 10, hours after he died. Bitter controversy, which seemed to surround Hammer in the last years of his life, has followed him in death.
That the episode occurred at all appears to be an indication of the volatility of litigation over the ownership of an art collection and other property of the Occidental Petroleum Corp. chairman, who was 92.
The incident was an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in July by Joan Weiss, Frances Hammer’s niece and sole heir. She accused Armand Hammer, Occidental and a battery of lawyers of improperly inducing Frances Hammer to sign away rights to most of her community property.
Among the assets involved was Frances Hammer’s alleged interest in her husband’s art collection--valued at up to $450 million. The collection is the centerpiece of the newly opened Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood.
Frances Hammer retained ownership of the Westwood home in which the Hammers lived for many years. Frances Hammer’s will--now in probate--allowed her husband to live in the house until his death, but turned it over to Weiss and her husband, Robert, once Armand died.
In this atmosphere of litigation, Richard Cleary, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Joan Weiss, arrived at the Hammer home about two hours after he heard that Hammer had died.
In court documents and in a telephone interview Tuesday, Cleary said that when he drove up to the house about midnight, he found four or five automobiles parked in the driveway and several men nearby.
“Within a few minutes after my arrival,” Cleary said in a sworn court statement, “I observed several people leaving the house through the front door carrying boxes and suitcases” and loading them into the cars.
Cleary said he was concerned that valuable documents might be improperly removed and he called Joan Weiss on his cellular phone. She called Los Angeles police. Sometime after 1 a.m. Dec. 11, police and the Weisses arrived.
Sources familiar with Occidental’s security department noted that for many years off-duty law enforcement personnel have been employed by the company to provide round-the-clock guard services at Hammer’s home and Occidental headquarters.
For some time, these sources said, contingency plans have existed to secure Hammer’s office area and residence as quickly as possible after his death. Reasons for the security measures are unclear.
Cleary said one of the men supervising removal of boxes from the Hammer house was Michael Hammer, Armand Hammer’s son and an Occidental official. In a separate statement, Joan Weiss contended that Michael Hammer refused to open the door to police.
Eventually, court documents say, Michael Hammer agreed to return all property to the house, where the belongings were to be stored in a locked bedroom to which only Michael Hammer has a key. Cleary retains the only keys to the house itself--after the Weisses called an all-night locksmith and had all locks changed.
“There were a fair number of papers in the house and the question is, whose are they?” Cleary said.
Last week, both sides went to court and a judge impounded the papers until today, when the Weisses are authorized to take official possession of the house.
The papers, said Cleary and Arthur Groman, Armand Hammer’s longtime attorney, will be placed in storage and someone--probably a retired judge--will sort through them to determine if they include anything that should be turned over to the Weisses.
“As far as we knew, they (the Weisses) had already taken out everything of Frances Hammer’s,” Groman said. “What right they had to go charging in with Dr. Hammer barely dead and seize all of the papers (that were being loaded into cars) is beyond me.”