In 1919 J. Edgar Hoover began compiling a file on Bronx-born Soviet operative Armand Hammer. Hoover kept adding to that dossier throughout his life, at one point scrawling across it “a rotten bunch.” Hoover may have been nuts about the “red menace,” but Hammer was cold war paranoia in the flesh: a Soviet agent living the charmed life of an American 1 percenter. He was art dealer, entrepreneur, oilman, philanthropist, socialite, and collector. Even Hammer’s name was a cheeky pun on the socialist symbol of an arm and hammer. His father, Julius Hammer, was a founder of the American Communist Party.
Hoover was living a double life of another sort. The most astonishing irony of the new Hoover biopic, J. Edgar, is the actor chosen to play Hoover’s longtime boyfriend Clyde Tolson. He’s none other than Armie Hammer (at left in the still at top)—namesake and great-grandson of Hoover’s old nemesis, the businessman-collector Armand Hammer (left).
Hammer’s talent for duplicity was well known to the art world. He bamboozled collectors and museums on both sides of the Iron Curtain. For many years, Hammer was LACMA’s most dysfunctional trustee (which is saying a lot). He died with the ultimate capitalist toy, a vanity museum with his name chiseled in marble. Even after death, the Hammer luck strangely persists. Today’s Hammer Museum, run by UCLA and focused on contemporary art, perpetuates his name better than the uneven art collection he donated.
A few bullet points, some from Edward Jay Epstein’s Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, a 1996 biography that draws on both Western and Soviet intelligence:
• Hammer made his first million buying up surplus whiskey before prohibition and selling it to manufacturers of patent medicines. In later years, Hammer insisted on calling himself “Dr.,” even though he claimed he never practiced medicine. But Epstein says that Hammer did perform abortions at his father’s clinic. When one patient died, Julius took the rap for his son and was sent to jail.
• Hammer called Lenin “a very warm and human person.”
• Hammer sold fake Faberge eggs stamped with a genuine Faberge seal he managed to acquire. “To him,” wrote Epstein, “collecting was a confidence game in which he supplied the necessary authentication, which took the form of a label, genuine or fake.”
• With his brother, Hammer ran Hammer Galleries, which British Intelligence once believed to be a front for Soviet Intelligence. Incidentally, it had a whole floor devoted to Leroy Neiman.
• In 1971 Hammer bought Knoedler & Co., which had sold art to Frick and Mellon. According to Knoedler director John Richardson, “It did not take me long to discover that Hammer knew and cared as much about art as Al Capone.”
• How many New York gallerists buy an oil company as a retirement project? Hammer did. He acquired a sketchy outfit called Occidental Petroleum for $34,000, naming himself CEO. He was 59 and had zero experience in the oil business. Libya promptly decided to sell him petroleum leases—evidently, a matter of knowing the right people—and they struck oil. Oxy grew into the 16th largest industrial corporation in America. Oxy board members had to submit signed and undated letters of resignation, to be accepted whenever Hammer felt like it (a humane alternative to the trapdoor under the chair?) The board was bullied into spending $100 million on Hammer’s vanity museum, and even into vanity M&A: They bought an interest in the company that made Arm and Hammer baking soda, for no visible reason except to amuse the fearless leader. Hammer was the anti-Steve Jobs. Whenever it was rumored that Hammer was dying, Oxy stock when up.
• Hammer gave the Hermitage its only Goya, Portrait of Antonia Zarate, claiming it was a multi-million dollar gift (right). It was a weak copy, and Hammer had bought it six years earlier for $60,000.
• Hammer agreed to give the Metropolitan Museum $1.8 million in return for putting his name on the equestrian armor hall. He stiffed them, paying only $800,000. After his death, the estate kicked in another $200,000 in return for the Met agreeing not to sue for the rest. They unchiseled Hammer’s name from the gallery.
• Being a Communist puppet did not prevent Hammer from being a staunch Republican. He made $54,000 in illegal contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign.
• Al Gore has always been sheepish about telling his middle name (a simple initial “A” on the birth certificate). Hammer practically owned Gore’s father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., and used him to open doors in Washington and hold Hoover’s FBI at bay. It’s rumored that the Gores wanted Hammer to think they’d named Al, Jr. after him—but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it.
• Hammer gave a Rubens, Venus Wounded by a Thorn (left), to USC’s Fisher Museum. He asked to borrow it, and they said OK. The painting went in the Oxy corporate headquarters. Hammer refused to return it, despite multiple polite requests and a threatened lawsuit. (His estate sent it back, after Hammer’s death.)
• Hammer supplied much of the art for Imelda Marcos’ ill-fated museum in the Philippines. Supposedly including works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Velazquez, the collection was auctioned for modest prices in 1991. “The whole thing is fishy,” Everett Fahy, then director of the Frick, said of the collection. “You can tell simply by looking that it’s junk.”
• Hammer had a long-running affair with the curator of Oxy’s art collection, Martha Wade Kaufman. To prevent his wife from finding out, he had Kaufman wear a wig and legally change her name (to Hilary Gibson)—so that Mrs. Hammer could peruse the Oxy annual reports without seeing the name of her husband’s mistress.
• When the Getty Museum was going to buy Rembrandt’s Juno, a deal brokered by the Hammer Gallery, Hammer stepped in and bought it himself, for the $3.25 million price that the Getty had painstakingly negotiated (down from the seller’s asking price of $5 million).
• When LACMA was going to buy the Rothe Daumier collection for $250,000, Hammer bought it himself, promising to donate it to the museum. He never did.
• Hammer long promised his painting collection to LACMA, including the Rembrandt Juno and van Gogh’s Hospital at Saint-Remy (right). He withdrew the pledge and built his own museum in Westwood, using Oxy Petroleum money.
• The original plan for the Hammer Museum called for a “Hammer Fireplace,” a Graceland-like “Hammer Memorabilia Room,” and no curators—they were felt to be an unnecessary expense. Hammer described his vanity museum as an “entrepreneurial venture” that would reap big profits.
• Hammer died two weeks after his museum opened, on the day he had chosen for his long-deferred bar mitzvah.