The Arthur Sackler Family’s Ties to OxyContin Money - The Atlantic
Much as the role of the addictive multibillion-dollar painkiller OxyContin in the opioid crisis has stirred controversy and rancor nationwide, so it has divided members of the wealthy and philanthropic Sackler family, some of whom own the company that makes the drug.
In recent months, as protesters have begun pressuring the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other cultural institutions to spurn donations from the Sacklers, one branch of the family has moved aggressively to distance itself from OxyContin and its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. The widow and one daughter of Arthur Sackler, who owned a related Purdue company with his two brothers, maintain that none of his heirs have profited from sales of the drug. The daughter, Elizabeth Sackler, told The New York Times in January that Purdue Pharma’s involvement in the opioid epidemic was “morally abhorrent to me.”
But an obscure court document sheds a different light on family history—and on the campaign by Arthur’s relatives to preserve their image and legacy. It shows that the Purdue family of companies made a nearly $20 million payment to the estate of Arthur Sackler in 1997—two year after OxyContin was approved, and just as the pill was becoming a big seller. As a result, though they do not profit from present-day sales, Arthur’s heirs appear to have benefited at least indirectly from OxyContin.
The 1997 payment to the estate of Arthur Sackler is disclosed in the combined, audited financial statements of Purdue and its associated companies and subsidiaries. Those documents were filed among hundreds of pages of exhibits in the U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Virginia, as part of a 2007 settlement in which a company associated with Purdue and three company executives pleaded guilty to charges that OxyContin was illegally marketed. The company paid $600 million in penalties while admitting it falsely promoted OxyContin as less addictive and less likely to be abused than other pain medications.
Arthur’s heirs include his widow and grandchildren. His children, including Elizabeth, do not inherit because they are not beneficiaries of a trust that was set up as part of a settlement of his estate, according to court records. Jillian receives an income from the trust. Elizabeth’s two children are heirs and would receive bequests upon Jillian’s death. A spokesman for Elizabeth Sackler declined to comment on the Purdue payment.
Long before OxyContin was introduced, the Sackler brothers already were notable philanthropists. Arthur was one of the world’s biggest art collectors and a generous benefactor to cultural and educational institutions across the world. There is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, and the Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
His brothers were similarly generous. They joined with their older brother to fund the Sackler Wing at the Met, which features the Temple of Dendur exhibit. The Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation was the principal donor of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London; the Sackler name is affiliated with prestigious colleges from Yale to the University of Oxford, as well as world-famous cultural organizations, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There is even a Sackler Rose—so christened after Mortimer Sackler’s wife purchased the naming rights in her husband’s honor.
Now the goodwill gained from this philanthropy may be waning as the Sackler family has found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight over the past six months. Two national magazines recently examined the intersection of the family’s wealth from OxyContin and its philanthropy, as have other media outlets across the world. The family has also been targeted in a campaign by the photographer Nan Goldin to “hold the Sacklers accountable” for OxyContin’s role in the opioid crisis. Goldin, who says she became addicted to OxyContin after it was prescribed for surgical pain, led a protest last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which demonstrators tossed pill bottles labeled as OxyContin into the reflecting pool of its Sackler Wing.
While it doesn’t appear that any recipients of Sackler charitable contributions have returned gifts or pledged to reject future ones, pressure and scrutiny on many of those institutions is intensifying. In London, the National Portrait Gallery said it is reviewing a current pledge from the Sackler Trust.