The battle over possession of one of the two Farrah Fawcett portraits by Andy Warhol has been one of the weirder legal reality shows of the past few years. Both Ryan O’Neal (Fawcett’s former lover) and the University of Texas made a claim the painting in question. Fawcett, upon her death in 2009, left her art collection to her alma mater, a collection that included the two portraits by Warhol, painted during his friendship with Fawcett and O’Neal in the late seventies, with an estimated value in the neighborhood of $12 million each. However, O’Neal claimed that the reason there were two portraits was that Warhol had painted one for each of them, and the second of them belonged to him, even though it had been in Fawcett’s possession since she stormed out of his house with it in the late nineties after discovering O’Neal in bed with another woman.

The painting had been with Fawcett until her death, at which point O’Neal took it from her house and hung it in his own, a fact that became clear when it was caught on-camera in an episode of O’Neal’s reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals. Fawcett’s college boyfriend (and late-in-life companion), former Longhorns quarterback Greg Lott, notified the University of the existence of the painting—in an apparent bid to establish himself as Fawcett’s one true love—and the lawsuit commenced.

With all of those story elements, it’s obvious why the saga captured so many imaginations: As Texas Monthly‘s Skip Hollandsworth detailed in February—two months after a jury initially found for O’Neal—Fawcett had been an enigmatic figure for much of her career. She rocketed to famed in part because of the 12 million posters sold of her in a red bathing suit, but after that, she stayed out of the spotlight, only re-emerging from time to time as either a figure of kitsch, or as an actress capable of earning Emmy and Independent Spirit Award nominations (or sometimes both). She was unknowable in ways that were widely appealing to a lot of Americans, and that meant that a legal battle that hinged, at least in part, on who she loved best was a guaranteed winner, from a public-attention standpoint.

It was also, ultimately, a winner for O’Neal, which was an unexpected result from the outset. As Hollandsworth put it in February: 

Initially, the lawsuit appeared to be nothing more than a simple contract dispute, one that O’Neal didn’t seem to have any chance of winning. Farrah had amended her living trust in 2007, leaving all her “artwork and art objects” to UT, and the language was ironclad.


[UT’s attorney David] Beck presented evidence that Farrah had kept the second Warhol from at least 1998 until her death (long after O’Neal and his new girlfriend had broken up), that she had insured both paintings, that she had once signed documents loaning them to the Warhol Museum in which she said she was the owner of the paintings, and that in one reality television show she had referred to the two paintings as “my Warhols.”  

In legal battles like this, it’s not an altogether foolish assumption that the party with the deepest pockets is probably going to be happier with the verdict, and while O’Neal is not a poor man, going up against the University of Texas will make most people an underdog. Yet as became clear yesterday, the matter is officially and fully settled: UT dropped its appeal and settled the lawsuit with O’Neal, and it’s a stunning victory for the reality show star:

It is, effectively, a total victory for O’Neal, who will get $25,000 in court costs from the university as part of the agreement. He gave emotional testimony at the three-week trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, saying he talks to the painting, which hangs over his bed at his Malibu home, and that he wanted to keep it for his and Fawcett’s son, Redmond O’Neal. The actors never married, but were together for many years.

Given how hopeless O’Neal’s case seemed from the beginning—and the fact that he was battling the University of Texas—the fact that UT agreed to even reimburse O’Neal for some of his legal costs is significant. Perhaps the only victory UT can claim here is that a napkin drawing made by Warhol and given to the couple along with the paintings that both parties also had claim to has been found to be the joint possession of O’Neal and UT, and it’ll be auctioned off to arrange the split. 

The napkin is estimated to be worth $3,500—a small fraction of the value of the paintings—but the publicity from this case could drive both its value and that of the paintings even higher. If you’re a Warhol collector, a napkin sketch made by the artist is perhaps not the most desirable of his pieces to own. But if you’re a fan of Warhol’s, then a piece of his that’s tied deeply to questions of celebrity, love, and ownership, involving a cast of characters as curious and compelling as the ones here might be a fine way to connect with the themes of the man’s work.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)