Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Secret FBI File: J. Edgar Hoover vs. J. Paul Getty

Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator?

That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime.

While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. It contains a fascinating account of the FBI’s ultimately inconclusive espionage investigation into Getty, who some in the government feared was “extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”

We’ve posted and annotated* the complete FBI file in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. We’ve also posted a declassified file from the Department of State here.

Here are highlights from Hoover’s investigation in J. Paul Getty, at the time one of the world’s richest men:

Aug 1940: The FBI takes notice when sources report that J. Paul Getty (“Geddy”) buys the run-down Hotel Pierre on 5th Avenue in New York City, fires the staff and replaces them with “employees of the Italian consulate.” Months earlier, Italy had joined forces with Nazi Germany. An inquiry is opened.

Aug 29, 1940: J. Edgar Hoover orders the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office to launch “a complete and thorough investigation” of Getty, noting his employees’ “Italian consular connections.” Hoover writes: “Getty may, because of his oil interests and German descent, be engaged in activity inimical to our Government.”

Nov 1940: After a preliminary investigation, the FBI opens a formal case file on Getty, listing the focus of the investigation as “Espionage.”

Nov 11, 1940: The investigation finds Getty has been married four times, and was accused of “immorality” and adultery by his wives.

Dec 1940: FBI file cites a New York Daily News article describing Getty as a “personal friend” of Hitler who has supplied oil to Russia.

December 1940: Getty’s attorneys write to US Embassy in London, denying claims made in Daily News article. Getty “never met and does not know Hitler, and is not and has never been friendly or sympathetic to him.”

Jan 1941: J. Edgar Hoover writes to the Attorney General, summarizing the investigation into possible espionage by J. Paul Getty.

Jan 1941: The FBI learns that in Nov 1939 Getty was in Berlin negotiating the sale of 1 million barrels of California oil to Soviet Russian buyers.

Nov 1941: FBI report from New York office summarizes investigation, concluding, “Investigation has failed to disclose information to substantiate allegations that the employees and those who frequent the hotel have Italian Consular connections.”

Jan 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge writes to Hoover saying there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution against Getty, but asks the FBI to continue its investigation.

April 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge instructs Hoover to continue investigation of Getty, noting “If these allegations, or some of them, are true the subject is a person extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”

April 1942: In a heavily redacted report, a confidential source tells FBI investigators that Getty advised Nazi army “a way to break through the Maginot line,” France’s protective barrier with Germany. Source tells FBI investigator that Getty was interested in Hitler “merely because of the efficiency with which HITLER and other German officials conducted their system of government…” Getty is “amenable towards the way those in power crush the weak.” Source tells FBI investigators that Getty turned down offers of oil and art from Russian and German officials in exchange for his help drilling oil wells.

Aug 29, 1942: Getty was interviewed by the FBI and denied any ties to Hitler’s government.

Oct 1942: FBI summarizes investigation of Getty, concludes facts “do not reflect that he is engaged in espionage activities.” Case transferred to unnamed division of FBI.

July 1943: Attorney General Francis Biddle concludes the FBI’s use of “danger classifications” for individuals was a mistake and should be stopped. He orders a memo placed into Getty’s file and others classified as dangerous, noting that such designations were unreliable.

Sept 1961: In 1961, the Kennedy White House opened a confidential “name check” inquiry into Getty. The report notes the FBI’s investigation of Getty and the oil tycoon’s promiscuous relations. It also mentions that in the 1940s Getty was involved in a paternity dispute with a woman who claimed the true father of the child was Getty’s friend Charlie Chaplin. The White House deemed the information in the file not relevant to the the inquiry, whose focus is not revealed.

Aug 1963: Kennedy is said to have accused Getty of avoiding income tax payments and using his money to subsidize “extreme right-wing propaganda.”

March 1973: Nixon Dept Assistant Alexander Butterfield requests inquiry into J. Paul Getty.

In hindsight, the FBI’s two-year investigation of Getty found nothing concrete, and appears more guided by innuendo and rumor than hard fact. With the FBI’s current focus on penetrating domestic terror networks, it is noteworthy that soon after the investigation concluded, Attorney General Francis Biddle advised the FBI halt its use of “danger classifications” like the one applied to Getty.

“This classification system is inherently unreliable,” Biddle concluded. “The notion that a valid determination can be made of how dangerous a person is…is impractical, unwise and dangerous.”

To this day, rumors persist about Getty’s ties to Hitler and Mussolini.

*Thanks to our friends at DocumentCloud for hosting the Getty FBI files.

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin at the NY Review of Books

The New York Review of Books has published our exchange with Hugh Eakin about his review of Chasing Aphrodite.

For those who haven’t followed the back and forth: Eakin reviewed the book in June’s NYROB. We posted our response here. The NYROB has now published an abbreviated version of that response with a final comment from Eakin.

We took issue with Eakin’s review, which we found “begrudgingly complimentary in several places, but also curiously littered with internal contradictions and a derisive tone that went unsupported by any argument of substance.” Eakin’s contortions appeared to be colored by his competing coverage of the Getty scandal for The New York Times and his sympathy for former Getty curator Marion True, who he had profiled in the New Yorker.

In Eakin’s final comment, he writes: “Let me be clear: there is nothing grudging about my admiration for their extraordinary revelations about the Getty Museum. Contrary to what they suggest, neither I nor any other reporter could compete with them because their information was, as I wrote, all their own.”

He goes on to cite several facts that he calls “contradictory” to our account of the controversial statue of Aphrodite, which was looted in Sicily and never seriously studied during its 22 years at the Getty. Rather than contradict our account (several of the facts he cites were, after all, first reported by us), they illustrate the contradiction between Marion True’s public and private persona. For example, Eakin cites two cases in which True professed to be open to scientific investigation of the statue’s origin. But he omits True’s statement to the Getty’s own attorneys that the purpose of these activities were “to keep the Carabinieri happy that we’re doing something.” (cited on p. 202 of Chasing Aphrodite)

As we said in our response to another True empathizer, sympathy for True’s plight is understandable, but should not blind us to the troubling complexities of her actions.

Eakin concludes his comment by noting, “The leaking of information to journalists places a burden on them to countercheck the claims being made.” We agree wholeheartedly, and spent the better part of five years seeking confirmation of and context for the leaked information we obtained. They offer a complex and multifaceted account that has not been contradicted. We wish Eakin had taken similar care to paint the whole picture.

We welcome your thoughts on the issues raised in this exchange. Feel free to chip in with a comment via the link below.

Loot at the Seattle Art Museum?

While in Seattle last month for a talk at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I stumbled across an interesting piece in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection of ancient art: a marble Roman portrait head of the Emperor Claudius.

Why interesting? Here’s the provenance listed for the object: “Robin Symes Ltd.; Seattle Art Museum, Norman and Amelia Davis Collection.” That’s the same Robin Symes who brokered the sale to the Getty of the looted Griffins, Apollo and Lekanis, which the museum returned to Italy in 2007. He was also the dealer who sold the Getty its famous looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned to Italy last year. (Symes was never indicted by Italian authorities, but his name comes up repeatedly as a key player in their investigation of the looted antiquities trade.)

I asked the Seattle Art Museum for details about the object. What was known about its ownership history? Was the museum concerned about possessing an object from a dealer known to traffic in looted art?

According to museum spokeswoman Cara Egan, the Claudius was acquired in 1993 from Symes. It had not been previously published, and had no known ownership history. (The Norman Davis endowment — named for a prominent Seattle collector of ancient coins — provided the funds for the purchase.)

“We proactively contacted the Italian authorities several times beginning in 2006 to alert them about the Claudius portrait and to research the object’s provenance,” said Egan. “We have not received a response back from them.”

The museum does not have any other objects in its collection known to have come through Symes or the other prominent dealers implicated in the Italian case, Egan said. The SAM continues to actively research the provenance of the piece and welcomes new information.

Egan did not provide any details about that research. We suggest the SAM consider contacting Greek authorities, who raided Symes’ estate on the island on Schinoussa. Among the items seized during the raid were photos of dozens of likely looted objects sold by Symes.

 

Podcast: Chasing Aphrodite at the Commonwealth Club

 

 

The Commonwealth Club has posted a podcast from Jason’s July 12 appearance.

The hour-long conversation with host Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum, touched on a wide range of issues including the origins of the Getty scandal, political pressure we faced while covering it for the LA Times, and lessons to be learned for non-profits and arts organizations. The lively audience of about 60 had great questions.

You can listen to the podcast here.