This article was posted on Saturday, Apr 01, 2023

J.P. Getty had five wives in succession. Each one, in her time, probably told her girlfriends, “Of course I know what he’s like. But after we’re married I’ll change him!”  The opening phrase “what he’s like” referred to his notable thrift. In personal relationships, marriages included, Getty was a miser. Once received, it was difficult for him to part with an asset. It’s hard to change that, especially if the man is unwilling.

Getty probably never thought of himself as miserly. In his mind, he was simply a brilliant negotiator. Others called him an opportunist. Perhaps he was a bit of all three.

He was 18 years old in 1910, the year he made his first $1 million. At the end of the 1920’s, he was worth $4 million, all largely due to oil and gifted bargaining. 

Generically speaking, it appears Getty’s preferred negotiation technique involved three parties. He was always the first party. The seller was the counterparty. The third party was required to squeeze the seller.

The third-party might be creditors knocking at the seller’s door (external pressure). Or perhaps the seller required immediate cash to fund his next aspirational investment, the one whose purchase window is about to close (internal pressure). Both creditors and the next big thing, and everything in between, can function as third parties to generate pressure, external or internal, on the seller.

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Sitting quietly in the corner while all this was happening was the mildly interested J.P. Getty, with the cash to close the deal but with a decided reluctance to part with the money. This tripartite negotiating practice worked often enough that Getty became increasingly wealthy. 


Getty’s home was in California. His largest investment was in the Middle East. He did not like to fly. That was Getty’s conundrum. He resolved it in 1959 by moving to England to be closer to his mineral rights. He purchased Surry Place, a 72-room,  Grade 1 “listed” residence built circa 1525. In Great Britain, graded buildings are those of particular historical or architectural interest. Only about 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade 1. To own one is kind of special.

Getty bought Surry Place from the fifth Duke of Sutherland for £60,000. Due to the new taxes on landed gentry that were first imposed during WWI and continued in force thereafter, it is highly probable that Surry Place had not been properly maintained for decades. 

The standard rate of British income tax was 6% in 1914, rising to 30% in 1918. Consider an annual income of £1,000,000 on which £60,000 of taxes were due. The after-tax net is £940,000. At the suddenly increased 30% tax rate, the aftertax balance would drop to £700,000. The shrinkage is very nearly one quarter million pounds. The taxpayer’s living expenses go on, and he must make up for the shortfall as best he can. The kennels and the fox hunting horses are quietly sold. Arrangements are made for an auction company to privately market a Reynolds and a couple of Gainsboroughs. But the primary austerity measure was to shift annual maintenance of the property into future years.

Deferred maintenance is not only cumulative, but it also compounds. By the time the hounds, the horses, and the paintings have been sold off, yet another year has rolled past and new economies must be found. Property maintenance is again kicked forward. In a short time, perhaps only a decade or two, the cost of accumulated repairs shifts from inconvenient to unaffordable.

All the similarly situated landed gentry have been flailed with the same tax increases. Assets held in the family for generations are now on the market, where they remain. Nobody buys. Families cannot maintain what their ancestors have slowly accumulated over the generations. Prices enter the long slide.

Then comes Getty. Suddenly there is a prospective buyer with the ability to perform. Getty enters negotiations with the fifth Duke. In this situation, the Duke is the counterparty. The taxing authorities act as the required pressure-inducing third party. It is powerful pressure. If the Duke doesn’t sell to Getty, the government will seize the family estate for back taxes and he’ll get nothing.

Cumulative deferred maintenance was almost certainly reflected in the final price. Post-purchase repairs were made, and after Getty’s death in 1976, his estate sold the property for £8,000,000, a compounded return of roughly 33% per year.


J.P. Getty Sr.’s fourth wife gave him two sons. Eugene Paul, the eldest, later changed his name to John Paul Getty, Jr. When he (the former Eugene Paul) had a son, he named him Jean Paul Getty, III.

The turmoil of adolescence was difficult for the eponymous grandson. He became impossibly difficult for the mother to control. He was entitled and obnoxious, two disagreeable characteristics, particularly in combination. Over time, he drifted into Rome’s bohemian underground. He became known as the scion of a very rich family and transformed into a candidate for ransom.  

Sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III was kidnapped from Rome in July 1973. The kidnappers were a group of Calabrians from southern Italy, loosely linked to organized crime. They telephoned their demand to the boy’s mother, who turned around and dialed the news to the boy’s grandfather (Getty I). The ransom demanded was $17 million ($114 million in now-money). 

Getty III’s troubled adolescence was known to Getty I, who thought the boy’s history constituted sufficient grounds for a reasonable person to believe the communicated demand was a hoax; that it was an amateurish effort by the rebellious teenager to pry some money loose from his grandfather’s boney grasp.

An extended period of cross-communication began. Getty I and the kidnappers bickered for four months, well into November. His negotiating position was that if he paid any ransom at all his remaining 13 grandchildren would become obvious kidnap targets. It was a charmingly oblique reference to 1 Corinthians 10:24 (“No one should seek his own good, but the good of others”), 

After carefully considering their options, the kidnappers cut off one of Getty III’s ears and mailed it to the daily newspaper Il Messaggero. The package was delayed three weeks due to an Italian postal strike, so the accompanying note, “This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits” left Getty III’s fate unknown.

It was now November. These Calabrians had spent four months dealing with an obnoxious and entitled adolescent and had begun to see Getty I’s point. They were no longer sure that Getty 1 really wanted his grandson back, at least until adolescence was well over. Another two months passed. The kidnappers collapsed their demand by 80%, to $3.2 million. It was a sign of desperation. They were up-to-here with Getty III, thank you very much. Recognizing weakness when he saw it, Getty I countered at $2.2 million. Later, when asked, “How’d you come up with that number?” he reasonably replied, “That’s all that was tax-deductible”. The kidnappers held firm at $3.2. A stalemate was in place.

With $2.2 offered versus $3.2 demanded, there was an obvious shortfall. It was covered by the grandfather lending his son, Getty II, the necessary one million dollars. Naturally, Getty I secured the loan through Getty II’s interest in the family trust. In sum, Getty I got his tax-deduction. Getty II regained the remaining parts of his son. Getty III became a drug addict and died at the age of 54.


In 1948 Getty acquired a 60-year concession for the petroleum rights in Saudi Arabia’s 2,200 square mile Neutral Zone. This was the desert area between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that was left undefined by the British when the border was established in 1922. It was the home of the Bedouins, made famous in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

The Bedouins, nomadic tribes that did not acknowledge any power beyond their clan, were the problem. This is illustrated in the Bedouin maxim, “I am against my brother. My brother and I are against my cousin. My brother, my cousin and I are against the stranger”. That made them troublesome people. And even if the Saudis had agreed to receive the Bedouins (and their 2,200 square miles of nothing), the Kuwaitis would have objected on general principles. Vice versa, of course.

In the years 1948 and 1949 both the Saudi and the Kuwaiti governments, with the concurrence of the British, granted oil concessions in the Neutral Zone to Aminoil (Kuwait) and Pacific Western Oil (Saudi Arabia). Pacific Western, of course, was Getty’s company. 

To acquire the Saudi’s concession, Getty agreed to pay King Abdul Aziz $9,500,000 up front plus a $1,000,000 annual fixed royalty, and a royalty of $0.55 per barrel. At the time, the major oil companies were paying circa $0.20 per barrel. Getty was over-bidding for the rights. It was totally out of character, but he saw probabilities where other bidders saw only troublesome people. Four years later, Getty I struck oil in the Neutral Zone and his net worth immediately doubled. 

By 1950, he was declared one of the richest men in the world.  He died in 1976 with a net worth of approximately $2 billion. Some people said he was, at his death, the absolutely richest man in the world.

For perspective, at the end of 2022, Forbes anointed Elon Musk as the (then) richest man in the world. They estimated his wealth at $219 billion. The hurdle for “Richest Man” advanced over 100-fold, from $2 billion to $219 billion in 46 years, a compounded rate of about 11% annually, unadjusted for inflation.

Note to the Reader:  This article is largely sourced from Wikipedia, expanded where appropriate by the following:

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as professional advice. Klarise Yahya is not a financial planner. Nothing in this article is presented as investment guidance. For specific circumstances, please contact an appropriately licensed professional. Klarise Yahya is a Commercial Mortgage Broker specializing in difficult-to-place mortgages for any kind of property. If you are thinking of refinancing or purchasing real estate, perhaps Klarise Yahya can help. For a complimentary mortgage analysis, please call her at (818) 414-7830 or email [email protected].