Art and billionaires: the Getty Museum and the worldwide flow of artwork

In the treasury of anecdotes about Lord Duveen - the old master at selling Old Masters to the superwealthy - there is a wonderful scene involving one of the Americans who helped put the word millionaire in the dictionary.

Samuel H. Kress, the dime-store magnate, is being steered purposefully by Duveen toward an intended art purchase. They start to pass a Rembrandt perched on an easel. The magnate is magnetized. Duveen tugs him back on course. ''You're not ready for that yet,'' he says. Kress tears himself away. But salesman has hooked millionaire. Kress has to have that Rembrandt. And, of course, he gets it - at Duveen's price.

The subject of art and millionaires (billionaires today) continues to fascinate the art world and the public. Ever since the late billionaire J. Paul Getty left $700 million in Getty oil stock to an art-centered trust in Los Angeles, concern has periodically erupted that his bequest would turn the art-collecting world upside down.

There is, of course, some logic to the concern. ''Art for art's sake'' may have been the spirit of Van Gogh and possibly the cave painters at Lascaux. But most of the time the price of art has been determined like that of any other rare commodity, from iridium to inverted-airplane stamps: by supply and demand. And wealthy collectors, Medicis or Mellons, have supplied the demand.

It's no accident that Barron's now prints the weekly Sotheby index of fine art alongside the Dow Jones and Standard & Poor's 500 averages. Art as a commodity (not art as one of the most uplifting human endeavors) is not exempt from the rules of inflation. More money chasing fewer paintings hikes up prices.

Harold Williams, the adroit and thoughtful president of the Getty Trust, managed to allay much of the concern about Getty Art Inflation in the months after he took charge in 1981. He consulted museum directors and art scholars across the United States and in other parts of the world. And he set in motion a master plan that will accomplish several things dear to the hearts of those museum directors and scholars. That master plan will also mean that not all of the Getty's immense purchasing power shows up to outbid others at art auctions and private deals.

The Getty has established a growing, three-part program that will provide a great deal of help to institutions and individuals who make up the formal world of art collection, conservation, history, and scholarship. It has bought a dramatic 742-acre site that could become a kind of Acropolis for Los Angeles. Upon a spectacular hilltop overlooking all of the City of Angels and the Pacific beyond, the trust will build a complex of three structures.

One of these, of course, is a new Getty Museum. But there will also be a center for the history of art and the humanities, with housing for scholars in residence, and a conservation institute, where advanced methods of preserving man's heritage of art works will be researched and taught. In addition, the trust is funding a program for encouraging and improving the teaching of art in the schools.

Mr. Williams, however, is the former wunderkind who ran the conglomerate business of that other California art collector, Norton Simon. After which he became dean of the UCLA Business School. And subsequently chaired the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington. So it should not be surprising that he and his carefully chosen investment advisers have multiplied the Getty bequest. The trust now is valued at about $2.4 billion.

Therein lies the source of a new round of the old concerns. By law, a foundation like the Getty has to spend what is in effect about 5 percent of its yearly income, or be heavily taxed. At the moment, it is comforting for other museums to note that the Getty will be announcing this fall the name of the architect to design its three buildings and their surrounding walks and gardens. A trust that is carefully quakeproofing many of the Greco-Roman and Renaissance pieces in its original museum overlooking the sea at Malibu will certainly build its new mountainside structures for the ages.

That expensive construction, the prime Los Angeles land, and the quality art-history programs all translate into income on the $2.4 billion trust fund that will not go into the auction room.

But every time the Getty outbids others for a photography collection or for Old Master drawings at Christies, ripples of concern arise among other collectors and curators. In normal moments, they are used to the idea that someone always outbids others at auction.

The concern is most often stated as fear that a ''Getty price'' will begin to prevail at auctions and that private sellers will either (1) offer the best works to Getty first or (2) set prohibitive price tags.

A number of arguments can be made against the concern that the Getty may become to art what the Hunt Brothers almost were to silver.

First, and most obvious, most of the great museum collections are already acquired and tightly held. ''Deacquisitioning'' (selling from the permanent collection), as practiced by Thomas Hoving during his tenure at New York's Metropolitan, is rarely done by most major museums today.

Second, there are strong ties between many private collectors and their native museums. For the wealthy donor, patriotism often outweighs ducats.

Third, there is no sign that the Harold Williams program in art history, conservation, and education will diminish over time. In computerizing, cataloging, and bringing together information on the earth's art heritage, the Getty may become the art scholarship center of the globe. But it will have to continue funding such a preeminent position in the future. And that will make it less likely to become the art collection center.

Fourth, the existence of Getty purchasing power helps to strengthen the funding programs of other great museums.

For example, the National Gallery in Washington, that repository where Duveen clients Mellon and Kress left their collections to the nation, is bolstering its Collectors Committee and its Patrons Permanent Fund.

The Collectors Committee, now numbering over 130 individuals and couples, reads like a combined social register and a who's who of art collectors. Among its many establishment names are those of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon P. Getty. Gordon is chairman of the Getty trust and target of a court fight by brother J. Paul Jr. over control of the trust.

The National Gallery Collectors Committee helps to fund and decide on purchases of 20th-century art. Each member donates $5,000 a year for such purchases. Husbands and wives often donate $5,000 apiece to ensure each has a vote on an impending purchase.

The National Gallery is also actively expanding a device that many museums find financially useful today: corporate sponsorship of special exhibitions, often blockbuster exhibits.

Jan Fontein, director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, has paid considerable attention to the Getty. One of his curators, John Walsh, became director of the Getty last year. Mr. Fontein feels that Getty purchasing power inevitably has some impact on the market.

But he believes the scarcity of great art and the creation of new pools of wealth around the world was bound to fuel higher prices anyway.

''I don't see how the Getty can stay out of 20th-century art and American art ,'' Fontein says. And he feels it will continue to collect important photography. Those fields would be added to the classical painting, sculpture, and furniture that were the backbone of the old collection.

But, says Fontein, one should not overlook emotional commitment in assessing the impact of billions of dollars on the art market.

''The notion that all the art dealers will first go to the Getty is exaggerated,'' he says. ''Art dealers are human beings and don't want to be pictured as having only one client. ... And at auction, sometimes the Getty has been the underbidder. ... John Walsh is not the kind of person to go mindlessly after a big name in art. Harold Williams is prudent with money. ... I don't think the Getty will ever be the Louvre or the National Gallery. They will have a different role to play.''

Perhaps, with its interest in art scholarship, conservation, and education, that Getty role may come a bit closer than expected to art for art's sake.

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