For most of the last 33 years, an Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett has hung in the home of her longtime lover, Ryan O’Neal, and a jury’s verdict Thursday ensures that is where it will stay.
For nearly a month, O’Neal has been in a courtroom as lawyers for the University of Texas at Austin sought to gain possession of the portrait, arguing that Fawcett bequeathed the artwork to the school upon her death.
O’Neal fought back and testified last week that the portrait was his closest remaining connection to Fawcett, who died in 2009. The actor’s descriptions of talking to the portrait and feeling the presence of the “Charlie’s Angels” actress were among the last words that jurors focused on, asking to hear his testimony again Thursday morning.
Within 90 minutes of reviewing the testimony, the panel returned a 9-3 verdict in favor of O’Neal. The actor wasn’t present for the jury’s decision, but his sons Patrick and Redmond O’Neal clasped hands and hugged after hearing the result.
Patrick O’Neal said he spoke to his father and “he was very happy.” The actor’s attorney Marty Singer said O’Neal was having a medical procedure and that’s why he wasn’t in court Thursday.
The artwork is valuable, with experts estimating it is worth between $800,000 and $12 million. Ryan O’Neal, however, told jurors he had no intention of selling it and wanted to pass it down to his only son with Fawcett, Redmond.
Fawcett left all her artwork, including a nearly identical Warhol portrait, to her alma mater. The model-actress however left nothing to O’Neal, who was her companion for nearly 30 years.
Within days of Fawcett’s death, O’Neal took one of two portraits of the actress that Warhol created in 1980 from her condominium. O’Neal had the permission of the trustee of Fawcett’s belongings and testified the portrait was a gift from Warhol for arranging the artist’s portrait session with the model-actress.
University lawyers attempted to discredit O’Neal’s ownership claims with footage from Fawcett’s reality show and a “20/20” television segment documenting the portraits’ creation.
O’Neal wasn’t seen in the footage, and a producer didn’t recall seeing the “Love Story” star at Warhol’s studio. But she also acknowledged she had no knowledge of who owned the artwork or how it was delivered.
The case featured testimony from O’Neal and several of Fawcett’s close friends, who said the actress told them one of the portraits belonged to O’Neal. Two witnesses who were disclosed late in the trial — Fawcett’s chiropractor and a former nurse’s assistant — also backed O’Neal’s claims.
Singer and another of O’Neal’s attorneys, Todd Eagan, said two years of litigation and the three-week trial could have been avoided if the university had conducted a more thorough investigation.
“He never should have been sued,” Singer said.
David Beck, a university attorney, said Thursday that the jury was conscientious and noted the panel was split on who should have the portrait.
He said the school felt obligated to pursue the case against O’Neal due to Fawcett’s wishes. “We had no choice,” he said.
Beck said the school’s lawyers would look at the case and decide its next steps.
The university showed jurors footage from Fawcett’s reality show in which she told an auction house owner that she had two Warhol portraits and was considering whether to sell one. O’Neal’s lawyers noted that Fawcett never said on-camera that she owned both pieces of art.
The school also showed the panel documents that Fawcett signed loaning the portraits to The Andy Warhol Museum in which she is described as the owner and artist.
Beck in closing arguments had urged jurors to give the school the portrait in accordance with Fawcett’s wishes.
“You’ve seen Farrah. You’ve heard from Farrah,” Beck said Monday in closing arguments. “Please, please, speak for her.”
The portrait has been a cherished possession for O’Neal, who told jurors it is one of his strongest reminders of his nearly three-decade romance with Fawcett.
“I talk to it,” O’Neal testified last week. “I talk to her. It’s her presence. Her presence in my life. In her son’s life.”
The jury also determined a tablecloth that Warhol drew hearts on and presented to O’Neal and Fawcett was jointly owned by the couple. The tablecloth was given to the university, and O’Neal has said he wants it back.
Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin said he will decide what should happen to the item during a January hearing.
While O’Neal’s portrait will remain in private hands, the university’s version continues to hang in its Blanton Museum of Art and the school has other artwork that Fawcett created.
“We are disappointed that the jury saw the evidence a different way, but we will continue to honor Farrah with the Warhol portrait we do have along with her other works of art,” the school wrote in a statement.