Stolen Getty diaries offered for auction: Sons of 'wealthiest man in the world' late to discover theft

THE diaries of the late J Paul Getty, once reputedly the richest man in the world, turned up for auction in a small town in the United States before his descendants knew that they had been stolen.

The 29 volumes of diaries kept by the oil tycoon, art collector and womaniser between 1938 and 1976, reappeared in Greenwich, Connecticut, with a price estimate of dollars 500,000 ( pounds 336,000) attached. They had apparently been stolen between Getty's death in 1976 and last year.

They had passed through several hands before being submitted for sale to Historical Documents International, a specialist company in Bedford, New Hampshire, according to Vanni Treves of Macfarlanes, the London lawyer who acts for J Paul Getty Jnr.

The unnamed vendors had bought the diaries in good faith, Mr Treves said this week, and the auctioneers proved uncooperative when asked to cancel the sale. It took a legal injunction, brought by Ronald Getty, to stop the auction, scheduled for 19 March.

Getty had three sons, J Paul Jnr and Gordon, who are full brothers, and Ronald, by another marriage. In the will, the diaries were left to Ronald, who was living in South Africa at the time of his father's death.

He put them into store and apparently forgot all about them - until rudely awakened by the announcement of their forthcoming sale. By the time the family lawyers got in touch with the auctioneers, widespread interest had been expressed and the price forecast had risen to dollars 1m (about pounds 670,000), Mr Treves said.

None of the sons was inclined to pay such a sum for their father's diaries, although they are all enormously wealthy. Negotiations are now under way for the J Paul Getty Trust to buy the diaries.

Getty had left his residual estate to the small museum he had founded in Malibu, California, which doubted whether it could use all the income on the capital and converted itself into a trust to widen its spending scope. The trust is capitalised at about dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.7bn).

No one knows the contents of the 29 closely written volumes, which Getty wrote up almost every day of his life, but members of the family seem to have decided to risk what he may have said about them getting out.

He fought with all his sons - and their mothers - at some time or other, but they have already lived through so many sensational media stories - over kidnapping, heroin addiction and tragic deaths - that publicity is nothing new. Much of the material appears to be extremely boring, however. Getty was the master of banal comment. The auction catalogue quotes some of his entries:

On Montgomery: 'Lunch with Field Marshal Montgomery. Fascinating man, 72, 5ft 7in, slender, active. I listened with great interest as he told me his impressions of Mr K, Mao, Tito, Eisenhower.'

On John F Kennedy: 'The radio said President Kennedy shot . . . appalling tragedy.'

On Julius Caesar: '2,000 years ago today Julius Caesar was assassinated. I have always considered him as the ablest man that history records.'

Mr Treves said that the J Paul Getty Trust would be well placed to produce transcripts of the semi-legible, hand-written diaries and make them available to scholars.

Scott Winslow, speaking on behalf of Historical Documents International, confirmed this week that private negotiations for the sale of the diaries were in progress.

(Photograph omitted)