The art world of 1960s America witnessed the meteoric rise and popularity of Andy Warhol. Manipulating the images that saturated American culture, he demolished the barrier between “high” and “low” art. Seeing himself as an artistic revolutionary, he supported a network of artists through his own studio space, “The Factory.” This space served as an incubation chamber for some of America’s greatest minds, including such superstars as David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Paul Morrissey, Nico, and even the infamous Beatnik, William S. Burroughs. A founding father of “pop art,” Warhol utilized his proximity to celebrity to produce landmark postmodern art that celebrated consumerism by delving into the strange world of advertising, cartoons, and pop culture. Exploiting the taboo beauty of fame, his artistic perspective materialized in many celebrity portraits that played with color and representation. These portraits depicted, among others, the famous faces of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson, Chairman Mao, and notably, Farrah Fawcett.
Ryan O’Neal, the Academy Award-nominated actor and Farrah Fawcett’s partner, mediated a meeting between Warhol and the Charlie’s Angels star in 1980. Fawcett’s beauty and youthful energy enraptured Warhol, inspiring him to paint two almost-identical portraits of her, both of which he gifted to the couple. O’Neal and Fawcett’s 30-year, on again off again, “deeply tumultuous” relationship ended in 1997 when she caught him in bed with actress Leslie Stefanson. Years later, Ryan O’Neal’s daughter Tatum alleged her father had physically abused Fawcett.
Upon her death in June 2009, Fawcett bequeathed nothing to O’Neal, and left her entire collection of art to her alma mater, the University of Texas, but obtaining Warhol’s paintings would not prove easy for the university.
When UT received Fawcett’s art collection, one of the portraits was missing. It had been taken by Ryan O’Neal. Greg Lott, a former UT quarterback and Fawcett’s partner at the time of her death, told the university of O’Neal’s theft, and in July 2011, the UT “system’s board of regents sued O’Neal in federal court.” A statement released by O’Neal claimed that one of the portraits belonged to him, and was erroneously bequeathed to the university because it chanced to be in Fawcett’s possession at the time of her death. After their split in 1997, O’Neal allowed Fawcett to keep his of the two portraits in her house because his new girlfriend felt “uncomfortable with Farrah staring at her.” Shortly after Fawcett’s death, with the permission of her estate, O’Neal returned to her home to retrieve the painting he believed to be rightfully his.
But UT was determined not to let the painting go without a fight. David Beck, the lawyer representing the University of Texas system, presented evidence proving that the second of the Warhol portraits rightfully belonged to Fawcett. O’Neal first gave Fawcett the portrait in 1998, a year after their split, and it remained in her possession until her death in 2009, long after O’Neal broke up with Leslie Stefanson. There were insurance claims for both paintings under Fawcett’s name, legal documents belonging to the Warhol Museum that declared Fawcett as the rightful owner of both portraits, and the language of her living trust, amended in 2007, showed that all her “artwork and art objects” were to be given to UT. The university is a well-funded behemoth, and the legal battle over the portrait seemed to be tipped in its favor.The battle ended in 2013, when a Los Angeles jury ruled in favor of O’Neal and UT dropped its appeal, settling the lawsuit out-of-court. The jury may have been swayed by O’Neal’s testimony, admitting he “talks to the painting” and wanted it for his son to keep. But apparently, the painting’s sentimental value has waned for O’Neal. He is now attempting to sell it for $18 million, even though it was appraised to be valued at $24 million in 2018. Not only did UT lose the portrait, but they also ended up paying O’Neal $25,000 in court costs, though there still may be a silver lining. A drawing doodled on a napkin by Warhol that was also given to the couple was found to be in neither the possession of the university nor O’Neal and will be sold at auction with proceeds being split between the two. Though the university essentially lost the legal battle, you can still see one of the two almost-identical portraits on display at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art.