WASHINGTON — Farrah Fawcett, iconic beauty. Ryan O’Neal, leading man. Andy Warhol, enfant terrible.
What could be missing from this 1970s soap opera?
It turns out that a very valuable Warhol painting of Fawcett allegedly is missing – and very much at the center of a tabloid-frenzied drama involving all three, even though Fawcett and Warhol are deceased.
Who owns the 1980 portrait of Fawcett by Warhol, done in his signature silk-screen pop art style, showing her with bright green eyes, eye makeup and red, red lips? O’Neal, her partner for many years, has it and says it’s his, but no less than the University of Texas Board of Regents is suing him, saying it’s missing from her bequest to her alma mater.
The drama will play out in Los Angeles Superior Court starting Wednesday, in a two-week trial with an all-star cast, including O’Neal; his son with Fawcett, Redmond O’Neal; celebrity Alana Stewart; and Fawcett’s fellow “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith on the witness list.
To ramp up the voltage, O’Neal has a celebrity attorney, Martin Singer, described by The New York Times as “guard dog to the stars.”
Fawcett died of cancer in 2009 at age 62. She left all her artworks in her living trust to the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied before going to Hollywood in 1968 to become a model and actress.
But unbeknown to the university, a painting was missing. To the school’s surprise, it discovered there was not one Warhol painting of Fawcett, but two – the artist had painted nearly identical portraits at the same time – and they’d been in her Los Angeles home. The tipster was Fawcett’s secret Texas boyfriend. Only one of the “twin” portraits made it to Austin with her extensive art collection, where it’s on display at the university’s Blanton Museum of Art.
After the school did some sleuthing, even hiring a private detective, officials had their suspicions confirmed: O’Neal had the portrait. In a twist worthy of Hollywood, the missing Warhol painting appeared in a short-lived 2011 reality show, “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals” about the “Love Story” star and his daughter, that showed the Warhol hanging in Ryan O’Neal’s Malibu home.
The Texas university system promptly sued, and O’Neal countersued.
O’Neal said that one of the portraits was his from the start – one painting for him, one for Fawcett _ and Warhol was his friend, whom he’d introduced to Fawcett. He also wanted back another Warhol, a sketch of split hearts the artist had scrawled on a cloth napkin with ink when they were all at a dinner, inscribed to Fawcett and O’Neal and signed by Warhol. The “Warhol napkin” is in the hands of the University of Texas.
The core issue in the case, which will go to a jury, is who owned the portrait: Fawcett or O’Neal.
Complicating the issue of ownership, aside from the celebrity factor, is the nature of their relationship. Never married, the two actors were together as a couple for many years, had a son in 1985 and divided time among several homes they owned.
“Ms. Fawcett and O’Neal had an extremely close, but sometimes tumultuous relationship,” O’Neal’s court filing said. “During the last 30 years of Ms. Fawcett’s life they lived together on and off again.”
Their split as a couple in 1997 has become a central point in the case, and O’Neal’s deposition revealed some lurid details. Asked by an attorney for the university whether Fawcett had found him in bed with another woman in February 1997, O’Neal, who’d written about the incident in a book, replied, “She did.”
That was the night Fawcett moved out. According to O’Neal, she didn’t take the version of the portrait that was at his home for another year. The other portrait was already in a home she owned.
“And the reason I gave it to her is because there was a new woman in my life and the painting was making her uncomfortable; that Farrah seemed to be staring down at her,” according to an O’Neal deposition in August 2012.
“And so I said, ‘Well, I can fix that.’ I took it to Farrah and said, ‘Keep this for me. I’ll be back.’ ”
He said Fawcett initially had said she liked that the painting made the other woman uncomfortable. “Funny girl,” he said.
Houston attorney David Beck, lead counsel in the case for the University of Texas system, scoffed at the explanation of how Fawcett came to have both paintings.
“I think that’s baloney,” Beck said in an interview.
The university’s position is that Fawcett had control and ownership of the second painting from at least 1998 until her death, when O’Neal entered her condo on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and took the portrait back to his Malibu home.
As for O’Neal saying that Warhol originally gave him one of them, Beck said, “That’s his story. It was in her possession and control for at least 11 years,” noting that she’d insured both portraits. “She signed documents loaning them to the Warhol Museum saying she was the owner, and there are videos of her talking about how she owns both paintings.”
The Andy Warhol Museum is in Pittsburgh.
Estimates of the value of the two portraits vary, with Beck saying the university places the one it has at $12 million and other reports putting it as high as $30 million. It was valued by appraisers Bonhams & Butterfields at $600,000 when it was transferred to the University of Texas. O’Neal said in the deposition that he now had the one in his possession insured for $900,000. It’s unclear how much the signed-napkin portrait is worth. The same appraisers valued it at $3,500.
So did O’Neal take what wasn’t his? There’s no dispute that he took the portrait out of her condo after she died, but he said it was his and that he was going to keep it for his son, Redmond.
A close friend of Fawcett’s, Craig Nevius, who produced her reality show, “Chasing Farrah,” called O’Neal a thief in several media appearances, and O’Neal sued him for defamation of character. That suit, for more than $1 million, is pending.
Nevius, who’s important to the university’s case, is listed as a witness for both sides. His Los Angeles attorney, Lincoln Bandlow, said Nevius was very clear about the ownership of both paintings.
“She never once remotely was saying that one was Ryan’s,” Bandlow said in an interview about Fawcett’s videotaped conversations with Nevius. “They were hers. No doubt about it.”
How did Nevius get involved?
University lawyers contacted him at the suggestion of Lubbock businessman Greg Lott, Fawcett’s college boyfriend. Lott was a quarterback for the Longhorns and Fawcett was a sorority campus beauty and, according to his deposition in the case last year, they got back together for the last 11 years of her life, a revelation that rocked the tabloids. O’Neal maintains that he and Fawcett were together until her death, even though they no longer lived together.
“Greg was very connected to the University of Texas,” Bandlow said. “So Greg reached out to the university and said, ‘There’s two Warhols.’ . . . Nobody knew where the other one was.”
Lott, who’s also on both witness lists, is central to the university’s case since he can testify to what he saw in her home.
Fawcett left Lott $100,000 in her will – and nothing to O’Neal – giving the Texan credibility as a witness, but Singer, O’Neal’s attorney, is going after Lott for being a “convicted felon” due to drug convictions in 1972 and 1982. The university filed a motion to prevent O’Neal’s legal team from bringing them up, saying they were long ago and irrelevant.
Jaclyn Smith’s entry on O’Neal’s witness list was a surprise to Beck, the university’s attorney. (The witness list misspelled her name as “Jacqueline.”)
“You can’t identify witnesses the week before trial,” said Beck, who’s moved to remove the former TV star as a witness.
But it adds to the glamour quotient that trailed Fawcett wherever she went, and even now follows her glamorous likeness.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @maria_e_recio