Category Archives: Hot Docs

Hot Doc: A Damage Assessment at the Getty Finds Forgery, Fraud and Fabricated Histories

The true cost of looting has always been hard to measure: how does one account for what is lost? Perhaps this is why some — Americans in particular, it seems — tend to think of looting as a victimless crime.

In truth, looting has many victims — the artifacts lost or damaged during the act itself; the defaced monuments and pockmarked archaeological sites left in its wake. Then there is the more pernicious effect of plunder and the black market it fuels — the corruption of our knowledge about the past.

Jiri Frel with The Getty Bronze

This is what the Getty Museum confronted in 1984, after the hasty departure of its charming and crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel. In his decade at the Getty, Frel had used any means necessary to build the museum’s antiquities collection into one worthy of the Getty’s wealth. In 1984, when his criminal activity was discovered amidst an IRS investigation, he abruptly left the country, leaving colleagues at the museum to clean up the mess.

John Walsh, Getty Museum Director

A confidential June 1984 memo from acting antiquities curator Arthur Houghton to museum director John Walsh was an early attempt to account for the damage done by Frel’s collecting practices. We’ve posted it below as part of our Hot Docs series, a effort to publish some of the key confidential files we used while reporting Chasing Aphrodite.

Arthur Houghton III

“Changes or additions to the central files registry should be recorded for many of the objects in the antiquities collection,” Houghton noted with characteristic understatement. “The scope of the problem is quite large and involved a number of areas.”

Among the problems Houghton reported:

Falsified provenance: Many of the ownership histories of objects in the collection were “mythical.” Frel and his trusted dealers had made a parlor game of inventing bogus European collections like “Esterhauzy” to cover the fact that the objects being purchased were fresh from an illicit dig.

Bogus attributions: Frel had often gussied up the attribution of objects to make them more palatable to the public or the Getty’s own acquisition committee. Roman copies were listed as Greek originals; a 3rd century BC sculpture became the only surviving piece by a Greek master.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Forgeries: Frel had bought several multi-million dollar fakes, either because he was fooled or (more likely) in exchange for a cut of the purchase price. The most famous is the nearly $10 million Getty Kouros, still on display today at the Getty Villa. As Houghton noted, “Several [fakes] are of major importance and involve very high values and the Museum’s reputation.”

Then there were the lies that mostly hurt the Getty: Frel had convinced the museum to dramatically overpay for objects, with some of the money likely coming back to him in kickbacks. He had inflated valuations of objects as part of a tax fraud scheme and invented phony donors — many still honored on Getty display placards– who he used to launder objects coming into the collection.

The Getty bought his sculpture in 1979, believing it was a head of Achilles by Skopas, a famous Greek sculptor. Subsequent research showed that it was a modern forgery.

In time, some of the most egregious distortions were corrected. The Getty kouros today is awkwardly labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery,” and several other fakes were taken off display. But in many more cases, Houghton noted the damage to the historical record was irreversible. “Much of the suspected provenance and acquisition (including donation) information is fragmentary; and while many records can be corrected in time and with reasonably diligent attention, it will not be possible with reasonable discretion to probe into the true provenance or acquisition history or many objects in the collection.”

The truth, in other words, was lost.

Today, similar distortions  and fabrications litter the antiquities collections of America’s great museums, which are tax-exempt because their public mission is education. In doing business with the black market, museums have betrayed that mission and filled their shelves with what amount to beautiful lies.

HOT DOC: June 1984 confidential memo from Arthur Houghton to John Walsh.

Article: “An Art World Detective Story: The Getty’s Head of Achilles” Suzanne Muchnic, LA Times, 11/3/88

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Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime, law professor argues

In January 2008, more than one hundred federal agents raided four Southern California museums. They seized scores of Southeast Asian antiquities that investigators said had been looted and illegally smuggled into Los Angeles before being donated at inflated values to the museums.

Since then, nothing much has happened in the case. But one legal expert is warning that the case represents a ticking time bomb for American museums, whose antiquities collections are still filled with looted antiquities.

If the raids result in convictions, the legal fallout could be devastating, argues Stephen K. Urice, a University of Miami law professor and one of the country’s foremost legal minds on cultural property.

Stephen K. Urice

“Continued possession of virtually all unprovenanced antiquities in public museums within the court’s jurisdiction would suddenly become actionable under the [National Stolen Property Act], and museums would be obligated to divest themselves of those collections promptly,” Urice writes. “Failure to do so would expose the antiquities to civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings, and the museums’ board and staff members to criminal liability.”

This doomsday scenario comes not from the alarmist fringes in the debate over antiquities but an avowed centrist. Urice is a former museum director with a PhD in archaeology, and was the founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s cultural law program. He has earned respect from archaeologists and museums alike for his dispassionate, middle-of-the-road analyses of museum policies and cultural property statutes.

That’s why Urice’s 39-page article in the Summer 2010 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is so striking. His analysis, now bubbling up in cultural circles, is too involved to present in full here. But in essence, it predicts a doomsday scenario based on a little noticed wrinkle in the NSPA, the key U.S. criminal law in antiquities looting cases.

LACMA Director Michael Govan asks federal agents to let him into the museum on the morning of the raid

In the 1977 McClain case, in which five Texas dealers were convicted of smuggling looted Mexican artifacts, prosecutors successfully asserted the antiquities were “stolen property” under US law if they were exported illegally from a foreign country with an enforced cultural property law that gives the government rightful owner of such artifacts. (According to the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, 180 countries have passed one or more such statutes ).

Urice reasons that this interpretation is easily extended to most museum antiquities collections, where the bulk of objects could be considered contraband because they lack provenance (ownership history) and valid export licenses.

Museums have believed that the statute of limitations would protect them from such claims. But Urice notes that a 1986 change in the NSPA added possession of such objects as a crime. Since possession is an on-going act, Urice writes, “even in situations where the museum had taken possession of an antiquity decades ago, there would be no statute of limitations defense.”

This hasn’t come up in past antiquities cases since prosecutors went after collectors or dealers. The Southern California raids, however, specifically targeted museums, which under McClain arguably possess stolen property. Urice argues that a successful conviction in the case would trigger a chain reaction, forcing other museums in the court district (such as the Getty) to disgorge their unprovenanced artifacts or have their officers face criminal indictment.

In Urice’s view, this is an unacceptable – and unintended — outcome of the law that would strip American museums of an important teaching tool. What to do?

Urice suggests several remedies. Among them is a law exempting museums from the potential fallout of Southern California case and other antiquities claims under the NSPA. A second one is to replace the NSPA with a new law with input from archaeologists and collectors — a likely bitter and tortuous process.

One question not addressed in the article: Are Urice’s warnings a present-day reality? After all, federal courts in New York and Texas have both found the McClain Doctrine to be the ruling precedent, making possession of looted antiquities an on-going federal crime. In order to seize the objects, the government would only need to establish probable cause that the objects were illegally exported — the burden would be on the museum to prove legal export, something that can’t be done for most antiquities. All that’s missing is a US Attorney interested in making such a bold case.

Whatever the answer, Urice’s article makes clear the legal struggle over looted antiquities did not end with the Getty scandal.

If the Southern California case moves forward, the worse may be yet to come.

HOT DOC: Urice on Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act

Our coverage of the January 2008 museum raids:

Raids Suggest A Deeper Network of Looted Antiquities

Federal Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Roxanna Brown: A Passion for Art, a Perilous Pursuit (3-part series)

Did Museum Officials Violate US Laws? Houghton on The McClain Doctrine and Crimes of Knowledge

Whenever we talk with Arthur Houghton — the Getty’s former antiquities curator who we’ll be on stage with this Saturday at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore — he asks a provocative question: did he or any other museum official violate U.S. law while buying looted antiquities?

The short answer, of course, is that no museum official at the Getty or elsewhere has been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime under US law. The real question, then, is: might they have?

Here’s an attempt to answer that hypothetical, using Houghton’s own writings while at the Getty Museum. As part of our “Hot Docs” series, we’ve annotated and posted transcriptions of the key documents via links below.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Getty officials certainly knew they were buying objects from an antiquities market awash in illicit material. In April 1984, while the J. Paul Getty Museum was considering the acquisition of its infamous statue of a kouros, Houghton told the Getty’s outside counsel: “Probably 95% of antiquities on the market were found in the past three years. The only way one would obtain them was if one did not ask the specific question that would elicit the specific answer about provenance that made the material unbuyable.”

Days later, Houghton elaborated on the risks of acquiring such objects in a memo on the law to museum director John Walsh. Law enforcement authorities had made clear that under their reading of current law, museum officials could be criminally liable for acquiring such objects, Houghton wrote. “No action will be taken against the importer unless it is clear that the importer acted with certain knowledge that the material had been illegally exported from a country which had appropriate national ownership in place. If Customs believes that the importer had such knowledge, they could seek criminal penalties against the importer.”

The criminal law Houghton was referring to was the National Stolen Property Act. In the 1977 case US vs. McClain, a federal appeals court in the 5th Circuit had found that buying antiquities illegally exported from a country with a national patrimony law was equivalent to buying stolen property under US law. US government officials had made clear that this “McClain doctrine” could be applied well beyond the 5th Circuit. In effect, there was no difference between buying a looted antiquity and a hot car. The government could seize the stolen property and criminally charge those who imported it, Houghton wrote.

At the time, the Getty was buying such objects at a breakneck clip. As Houghton wrote a month later to deputy director Deborah Gribbon, “No other department of ancient art has an acquisition program as intense as ours nor one which, if it is to be maintained, requires such frequent contact with market sources.” In fact, the Getty was buying objects far faster that its staff could document them. “Some 30% of the collection has not been photographed, a significant number have no accession number, and there is no file by subject matter or chronological order to help find things,” Houghton wrote.

Harold Williams, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Word of the Getty’s potential legal exposure made its way to Harold Williams, the CEO of the Getty Trust and a lawyer who had run the SEC. Williams wrote to Walsh about the troubling rumors he had heard about the antiquities market: “Indeed, much of the conversation is to the effect that 90% of the objects on the market are presumed to have been recently come out of Italy or Greece.” Williams wanted answers, and Walsh punted to his “ethical tutor” Houghton, who was asked to explain how the museum could continue to acquire undocumented antiquities under such conditions.

John Walsh, Getty Museum Director

Houghton’s answer came in the form of another memo, this one entitled “Ethics and the Acquisition of Antiquities.” It lays out the two views on collecting undocumented antiquities: those of archaeologists, who favor restrictions, and those of curators, who feel a “special obligation” to acquire objects. In the end, Houghton concludes that the Getty is justified in the acquisition of undocumented antiquities because it is better prepared that most museums to protect, conserve and display these objects.

But how to navigate the law and the McClain Doctrine, which suggested such acquisitions could violate US law? Houghton’s solution was “optical due diligence.” In essence, the Getty would create the appearance of propriety and high ethical standards while buying what it wanted, being careful to avoid the “certain knowledge” of an object’s illicit origins that could land a museum official in jail.

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)

Houghton resigned from his post in 1986, but his rationale for continuing to collect undocumented antiquities became the basis for the Getty’s new acquisition policy the following year. That policy change allowed the Getty to buy a statue of Aphrodite despite clear signs it had been recently looted from Southern Italy.

Did Getty museum officials have the “certain knowledge” about the Aphrodite required for criminal charges under the McClain Doctrine?

Walsh’s handwritten notes from a meeting with Williams that September would suggest they did: “We know it’s stolen…Symes [the dealer offering the Aphrodite] a fence.”

Today, both men claim the conversation was hypothetical, not about the Aphrodite. Would that defense have held up in criminal court? Thanks to the statute of limitations, we’ll never know.

We look forward to seeing Arthur again on Sat, October 29th at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. Details are here.

Hot Docs: 

Houghton on the Law

Houghton on Antiquities Ethics

1987 Acquisition Policy

Hot Docs: Marion True the Crusader

Former Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True

One of the most scathing rebukes of the collecting practices of American museums in recent memory came not from a grumpy archaeologist, a nosy journalist or an overzealous foreign prosecutor. It came from one of the museum field’s rising stars: Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

In June 2000, True delivered a gutsy speech to an audience of museum peers that denounced them for relying on “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” arguments to justify their collecting of ancient art. Over the course of the next hour, True dismantled the various justifications museums had long used to buy ancient art that was almost certainly looted.

The speech, whose full text we’ve posted and annotated here, is remarkable not just for True’s scathing remarks but also for their venue: the annual gathering of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group is the museum profession’s most powerful, consisting of representatives from the country’s largest and wealthiest collecting institutions. As such, the AAMD wields immense clout on matters of institutional policy, including collection practices.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Met

Under the sway of former directors Philippe de Montebello of the Met and James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago (now CEO of the Getty), the AAMD had long resisted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which calls for import restrictions and international cooperation to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities. Instead, AAMD’s guidelines were riddled with caveats and loopholes that allowed member institutions to buy undocumented antiquities as long as the pieces were artistically “significant.” In her speech, True was calling out the power structure of American museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Her speech was inspired by an earlier panel at Columbia University on the Elgin Marbles. The discussion “had nearly devolved into a fistfight” when a fellow panelist suggested the Parthenon sculptures needed to remain the British Museum because the Greeks were “unworthy custodians and therefore did not deserve to have it” [sic]. “As the three front rows of the audience were primarily of Greek nationals or Greek Americans, this statements did not go down very well,” True noted dryly.

True said the debate had caused her to re-trace the evolution of what had become an increasingly nasty debate about cultural patrimony that pit foreign officials and archaeologists against American museums, dealers and collectors. “Given the seemingly noble intentions that inspired the foundation and development of American Art museums, how have they now come to be so often in direct conflict with the source countries and the academic communities that work on cultural heritage?”

Her answer laid the blame squarely at the feet of American museums, which had used similarly “demeaning arguments” to justify their acquisition of marquee objects and to brush off the concerns of foreign countries. She listed the most common arguments, many of which are still used today:

“–Because the contemporary population was ethnically not the same people as the creators even thought they inhabit the same territory;

–Because the police force in the source country does not do enough to protect its patrimony and maybe even is in collusion with the smugglers;

–Because art historians in the country are not up to the job of studying their own patrimony but have had to look to the British German and American scholars for leadership;

–Or because the national laws governing the protection of cultural properties are repressive since they do not allow the free trade in the objects that US laws allow and,

–Or most perplexingly and inflammatory, in the case of Italy, because Mussolini had continued to enforce the laws instituted in the 18th century to protect Italian artistic heritage, that we would be enforcing the laws of a fascist regime.”

“Surely,” True said, “we should not have to rely on such distorted, patronizing and self-serving observations to justify collecting ancient art in this country.”

Next, she turned her sights on dealers and collectors, who still “vehemently denied” the extent of looting that has been clearly documented by archaeologists and governments. Their claims that the illicit trade was small were “contradicted by the evidence,” including their own political machinations to gut American laws prohibiting the import of such objects. It was time to accept that most undocumented antiquities came not from “old European collections,” as dealers and museums were fond of claiming, but from recent chance finds or illegal excavations, True said.

Likewise, the claim made by Sothebys and other auction houses that sellers preferred not to reveal provenance information “flew in the face of logic” because such information would only increase an object’s value. And the common practice of asking governments for evidence of whether a piece had been looted “conveniently ignores” the fact that, by definition, such objects are “undocumented,” she said.

She concluded with a knock-out punch: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty,” she said, citing the Getty’s own 1987 acquisition policy and the writings of James Cuno while at the Harvard Arts Museums. “But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.

“It has been our unwillingness to do so that is most directly responsible for the conflicts between museums, archaeologists and the source countries.”

In one fell swoop, True had laid bare the cynical path of many museum masterpieces—a path few insiders had ever been willing to publicly acknowledge.

But as powerful and succinct as True’s presentation was, her listeners could have been forgiven a measure of skepticism. While it represented one side of Marion True – the crusader for reform — they knew another: the accomplished curator and competitor who for a decade had used those very same tactics to fill the Getty with some of the best undocumented pieces in the world. Indeed, True’s intimate knowledge of museums’ efforts to navigate the illicit trade was based on her personal experience.

As it happened, the day after True gave her speech a judge in Switzerland ruled that Italian officials could take possession of hundreds of Polaroids and documents that had been seized in a 1995 raid of an antiquities dealer’s Geneva warehouse. The Polaroids showed scores of looted artifacts as they appeared fresh from the ground. Eventually Italian investigators traced the greatest number to the Getty and Italian prosecutors started planning a prosecution of Marion True.

A Polaroid of the Getty's Statue of Apollo showing it soon after being looted

Soon after, an internal Getty probe found similar photos in True’s own curatorial files showing, in the words of the Getty’s outside counsel, “objects in a state of disrepair or in a location from which they may have been excavated.” The Getty’s attorney concluded it would take little for the Italians to link True to a conspiracy or to support a claim that the curator “knew or should have known that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Among their best evidence, he noted, would be True’s own 2000 speech before her peers at the AAMD.

Jiri Frel: Scholar, Refugee, Curator…Spy?

In the early 1980s, the antiquities department at the J. Paul Getty Museum was a hotbed of whispered political intrigue.

Rumors swirled that the department’s Czech curator, Jiri Frel, was a Communist spy. And many believed the deputy curator, former State Department official Arthur Houghton, was a CIA plant tasked with keeping an eye on Frel’s activities.

Frel’s once-classified FBI file, obtained by the authors under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the US Government asked similar questions about Frel in 1971, when an investigation was conducted into his “possible intelligence connections.”

As part of our Hot Documents series, we’ve posted the entire FBI file here.

Frel was born in Czechoslovakia 1923 as Jiri Frohlich to a Czech father and Austrian mother, the FBI records show. (The family changed the surname to Frel in 1940s, possibly to hide Jewish roots.) Frel entered the United States in 1969 as a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute had long been an intellectual home base for leading scholars, including Albert Einstein.

After a year at the Institute, Frel was granted political asylum with the help of lawyers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he had begun working as an research associate in the Greek and Roman Department under Dietrich von Bothmer. Interestingly, Frel cites additional assistance from George Kennan, the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union and a leading historian at the IAS.

During an interview with FBI agents in September 1971, Frel was “extremely cooperative,” the records show. Frel denied ever being a spy but he admitted to providing Communist government officials with the names, background information and psychological assessments of those he met on his scholarly travels throughout Europe during the Cold War. “He stated that while he was never aware of this information being used for intelligence purposes, he often suspected that the Chechoslovak [sic] Intelligence Service reviewed copies of this form,” the report notes.

The FBI seemed particularly interested in Frel’s ties to his mentor at Charles University, a woman whose name is redacted in the FBI file. We shared the FBI file with an expert on academic life under Communist Prague, UC Berkeley Associate Professor John Connelly, who was able to identify the woman as Ruzena Vackova,  a professor of classical architecture in Prague who was condemned to 22 yrs. prison in 1952.

According to Connelly, Vackova was one of the few in academia to speak openly against the Communist regime and was the only professor in Prague to march with student protesters. In Connelly’s book “Captive University,” he describes Vackova telling a group in March 1948, “…if a criteria for dismissing these students was participation in these demonstrations, then I would like to share their fate.” (p.194) Vackova spent 16 years in prison and her dissent continued after her release, Connelly told us in an email.

“She was an extraordinary, outstanding person,” he said.

The FBI had picked up on whispers that Frel may have been a Communist agent who turned Vackova in to the authorities. “Since he was one of her protégés at Charles University in Prague, a rumor began to spread of which he was aware, that he had somehow cooperated with the Communist government in her demise,” the report notes.

Frel denied the claim and railed against the Soviet overlords in his Czech homeland, saying he “vehemently disagrees with the Communist regime.” Yet the curator also volunteered (we imagine somewhat sheepishly, but the bland FBI prose doesn’t say) how he cultivated the regime’s approval by once applying for the Communist party. Frel said he applied “to keep his position at the university,” and was rejected because of his incompatible political views.

Connelly believes that it is unlikely that Frel had any role in Vackova’s arrest. “He was probably a conformist (like the overwhelming majority) who tried to anticipate the will of the regime,” Connelly wrote to us. Few who knew him at the Getty would think of Frel as a conformist, but during his years there he certainly showed a flare for telling those in power what they wanted to hear while doing what he damn well pleased.

Espionage allegations aside, the Frel file is a fascinating study of a complicated personality. It hints at Frel’s famously chaotic love life. More importantly, it demonstrates how adept the charismatic polymath, connoisseur and political shape-shifter was at manipulating situations and spinning answers for his own survival. Colleagues at the Getty knew Frel as an Old World snob who constantly complained about America, its broken education system, its obsession with pop culture, its hot dogs and unpalatable mustard. Indeed, years later, when he was caught conducting a massive tax fraud scheme and falsifying provenance for million-dollar fakes at the Getty, Frel left America and never looked back. Yet during his 1971 FBI interview, the reporting agent noted how Frel gushed that “he considers the United States to be in his words ‘a great and good country.”

The story told by the documents is not complete: 10 pages were redacted, citing exemptions for national security and privacy. But it’s clear the FBI closed its case in 1971, concluding Frel had no ties to foreign intelligence services. Frel died in Paris on April 29, 2006.

As for Houghton and his ties to the CIA, the rumors were not far off. Before coming to the Getty in 1982, he had spent a decade working for the State Department, including time in its bureau of intelligence and research as a Mid East analyst. Houghton was fond of cultivating his image as a man of mystery. In truth, he had burned out on the diplomatic bureaucracy and chose a career that brought him closer to his long time passion — ancient coins. Houghton remains active in the field to this day.

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.