UT goes another round to get Fawcett portrait

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The case of Farrah Fawcett’s missing portrait is getting a redo.

The University of Texas is appealing a Los Angeles Superior Court jury verdict from December that an iconic portrait of the late actress by Andy Warhol belongs to her on-again off-again lover, actor Ryan O'Neal.

Fawcett was 62 when she died of cancer in 2009 and she bequeathed all her artwork, including her own creations, to the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied art in the1960s.

O'Neal, however, took the painting from her Wilshire Boulevard condo after she died and has maintained that it was always his – there were two nearly identical portraits painted in 1980, one for him and one for Fawcett. The university has one, on display at the university’s Blanton Museum of Art in Austin. O'Neal, the “Love Story” star, has the other, he testified during the colorful three-week trial last year. It’s hanging over his bed, where he continues to converse with Fawcett. “I talk to it. I talk to her. It’s her presence in my life,” he said.

And that’s where it will stay, unless the university prevails before a California Court of Appeal.

The case has already had a high cost: The university had spent $1.15 million in legal fees and expenses as of the end of March to recoup the painting, according to data the university provided to McClatchy under the Texas open records law. The fees and expenses have been paid to the Houston law firm of Beck Redden LLP since the case was filed in 2011. O'Neal’s lawyers and the university’s lawyers are still slugging out the last remaining issues that surround splitting the costs of the trial, with a hearing set for May 2.

The painting, according to lead attorney David Beck, is appraised at $12 million.

The university has a $1.3 million limit authorized by the University of Texas Board of Regents to secure the painting.

In a brief statement, Gary Susswein, University of Texas at Austin director of media relations, said, “UT met the required deadline for appeal and continues to discuss possible next steps.”

If it continues to pursue the appeal, the university would almost certainly have to authorize additional spending.

O'Neal’s attorney Martin Singer said in an interview that he wasn’t surprised that the university had appealed – “everybody appeals” – but was confident in his client’s position. “We won the case already,” he said. “We had six witnesses, who were all different – her employees, her friends – who all confirm that Ryan owned one and one was hers. We feel very confident.”

The university’s lawyers countered during the trial that the actress had ownership and control of both paintings and had paid insurance on them at least since 1999. Fawcett and O'Neal broke up in 1997 – they were never married – complicating the ownership issue.

Singer thinks he has a persuasive argument that there are two nearly identical paintings and the university already has one portrait of the “Charlie’s Angels” beauty. “We felt they should be happy with one,” Singer said in the interview. He accused the University of Texas in court of being greedy.

The university didn’t know there were two portraits until a tipster – Fawcett’s former boyfriend – told it. The case was filed after the university hired a private detective for $5,000, records show, and the “missing” painting showed up on a short-lived reality TV show starring O'Neal and his daughter, Tatum O'Neal.

The jury also ruled on another disputed issue of ownership: a small painting of split hearts dedicated to Fawcett and O'Neal that Warhol dashed off on a napkin when they were at a dinner together. Warhol died in 1987.

Fawcett had the keepsake, which the university now has, but the jury found that it belonged 50-50 to Fawcett and O'Neal.

All of which has left some Texans divided, too.

Bill Miller, a political consultant in Austin, thinks the university should stick to its guns. “There’s cultural and historical significance to her,” he said of Fawcett. “A million dollars is nothing” for a school that spends over $160 million annually on sports. “It’s an inexpensive effort to retain a cultural image.”

But Austin businessman Paul Kristynik, who knew Fawcett when she was at the university, said he didn’t see why administrators should spend any more money to get the painting. “They’ve already got one of them,” he said.

(NOTE: Blanton Museum officials say the Fawcett painting is no longer on display at the museum. For more information, contact blantonmuseum.org.)

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria–e–Recio.

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