SANTA MONICA, CALIF., FEB. 13 -- Another embarrassment to the Getty Museum, the richest in the world, was reported today by The Times of London in a copyrighted story by former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving and a Times reporter, both of whom have written articles critical of the museum in the past.
The Times report touches on strange donations, inflated tax write-offs, and an elusive former antiquities curator -- all elements that seemed to come together at the plush museum on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Malibu. The story, by Hoving and Geraldine Norman, alleges that the Getty's former curator of antiquities, Jiri Frel, "built his collection there by encouraging tax avoidance running into millions of dollars."
The two also reported that the museum waited almost six months to take action after Frel's activities were suspected, and that Frel continued working for the Getty for another two years.
Hoving, who now edits Connoisseur magazine, also charged that millionaire Norton Simon, whose collection fills the Norton Simon Museum in nearby Pasadena, attempted to "deflect" today's story. In a separate Times story and an interview, Hoving said that Simon discussed with him possibilities that would bring together Simon, Hoving and the Getty -- and also discussed the possible purchase of Connoisseur.
Simon, informed today of the contents of the Times story, declined to comment.
Simon and the Getty have purchased works of art in common and there is much speculation that the museum might eventually acquire Simon's collection. Harold Williams, president of the $3.1 billion J. Paul Getty Trust, used to work for Simon. Simon's wife, actress Jennifer Jones, is a Getty trustee.
The Times says that Frel, who once worked for Hoving at the Met, "had attracted tax-deductible donations valued at more than $14 million by offering to arrange massive overvaluations for tax purposes on behalf of 50 or more donors over a 10 year period." Between Frel's arrival at the Getty in 1973 and May 1984, when he left, "over 100 donors contributed 6,453 items valued, according to the museum tax return, at $14,441,228," the newspaper reported. By contrast, over the same period, the Getty received painting donations worth only $866,000.
Hoving said he had concluded that Simon had deliberately tried to "deflect" the investigation to save embarrassment to the Getty.
Williams, in a letter to Hoving Wednesday, acknowledged that former curator Frel had violated museum rules in arranging acquisitions and been shifted to research work in 1984. Williams did not respond to a Hoving charge that Williams had told his board in 1984 about Frel's tax dealings, and then did not notify federal authorities.
A Getty spokeswoman today declined to say whether Frel himself had appraised the objects donated to the museum. The story says Frel "worked closely" with a Beverly Hills art dealer who told reporters, "I made many valuations for him . . . Sometimes when he was in a hurry, I would give him appraisals over the telephone and allow him to sign my name to them, though I only did this when I had seen the material or had photographs." Hoving said today, however, "Five donors told me that Frel himself had appraised their gifts."
Norman and Hoving, who have written articles questioning the authenticity of Getty acquisitions, said they both sensed a story at the Getty, and joined forces when they found themselves crossing each other's trails.
Hoving, examining Getty donations lists released under requirements of U.S. law and filed at the Foundation Center in New York, said he noticed what he thought were unusually large donations, and discovered no IRS record of some donations that Frel had recounted in published articles.
Norman and Hoving called Getty donors and concluded that Frel was encouraging donations, many at claimed values far above the market rate. The reporters said they found no evidence of Frel himself profiting from the inflated appraisals.
One donor, Lynchburg, Va., shoe manufacturer Alan Salke, said Frel persuaded him to donate a red figure cup by Phintias, a Greek vases painter, with a valuation of $300,000. "It cost me a bloody fortune," he reportedly told Hoving. "I ended up with a deduction of only $90,000" after the IRS reviewed his tax form. A spokeswoman confirmed that Hoving had spoken to Salke, but said he could not be reached to confirm the details of the conversation.
The Norman-Hoving report said some donors "probably never saw the vases, statues and bronzes that they were kind enough to donate." Bart McLendon, son of the late Texas broadcasting magnate Gordon McLendon, was reportedly surprised by the idea that his father was a connoisseur, the Times report said. Between 1976 and 1978 McLendon gave the Getty $2,144,550 worth of items, the report said, yet the younger McLendon said his father "knew nothing about art. He wouldn't even have known how to spell it -- and it's not a very long word."
Hoving said he gave Frel a job at the Metropolitan in 1971 and helped him acquire legal immigrant status in the United States. Hoving and Norman failed to find him for their story. They visited his apartment on the outskirts of Paris, and spoke briefly to Frel's son, Alexander, but were never able to ask Frel about his activities.
In his letter to Hoving Wednesday, Williams said the Getty management in late 1983 launched "an extensive investigation" of Frel's activities, "which involved outside counsel" and disclosed "there had been serious violations of the museum's policies and rules regarding donations to the antiquities collection." Frel was removed from his "curatorial duties" but allowed to remain on the payroll because he was "a distinguished scholar" and a longtime staffer who had build a fine collection and because "there was no evidence of personal financial gain on his part." Williams, in his letter, said the museum's response to the problem was "appropriate, responsible and timely."
Hoving said Simon first intruded into the matter in November at a time when initial interviews with Getty donors may have alerted the museum to the investigation. In telephone conversations then and last week, Hoving said Simon suggested "a mutually constructive talk with a common end in mind for a joint enterprise, one that will be highly productive for both our objectives."
Hoving said Simon proposed buying Connoisseur from the Hearst Corp. and providing it with new resources and advertising, including some from the Getty. He said Simon also spoke of a possible partnership between the Getty and the Simon Museum, and the chance that Hoving might become the "head guy" of such a venture.
Hoving said Simon had told him that Simon and Harold Williams needed to know more about his view of several matters before going ahead. "Wouldn't you call that a deflection?" Hoving said.
Hoving said when he told Simon such discussions would be impossible, Simon replied, "I always think in terms of fantasy."
Also contributing to this story was Washington Post art critic Paul Richard.