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Leonardo Work Fetches Record $30.8 Million

November 12, 1994|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — After just two minutes and 40 seconds of bidding, a scientific manuscript handwritten and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci was sold Friday at Christie's auction house for $30.8 million--a world record--by the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. The buyer was an anonymous private collector.

Armand Hammer, the late chairman of the board of Occidental Petroleum Corp., purchased the work in 1980 for $5.62 million at a London auction, a record price at the time. Before Friday's sale it had been estimated to sell for more than $10 million.

With more than 300 illustrations, the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer is a vast treatise about water written in Florence between 1506 and 1508 that presents Leonardo's original ideas about hydraulics, astronomy, geography, geology and mechanics. Laboriously written by pen in two shades of brown ink, the document expresses a driving curiosity to understand and appreciate nature by one of the Western world's great thinkers.

The manuscript was consigned to the Manhattan auction house in June by the UCLA/Hammer Museum as a hedge against a lawsuit against the industrialist, which was dismissed in August. Hammer opened the museum in 1990, just before his death, and UCLA took over management of the facility last April.

The favorable court ruling did not dissuade museum officials from selling the manuscript, however. Officials said they needed to re serve funds for other potential legal expenses against the tycoon's estate, and that if enough money remained after these unspecified expenses, it would be used to buy other art works for the museum.

In a front row of Christie's auction room on Park Avenue was a group from Milan's Cariplo Foundation, who wanted the treasure returned to Italy. The foundation was backed by Cariplo, one of Italy's biggest banks. The other bidder was anonymous, relaying offers to the room by telephone.

Within a minute, the bidding soared from an opening of $5.5 million to $18 million. A minute later, the offers reached $22 million, then escalated at an even more breathtaking pace to $28 million.

"It is away from this room now, on the telephone at $28 million," announced Stephen Massey, the auctioneer. "I will give everyone time."

Massey, senior vice president and director of Christie's books and manuscript department, paused at the podium and stared at the three bidders from Milan. They declined to make a further offer.

"Last call, $28 million," the auctioneer said. Massey slammed down his hand. "Twenty-eight million," he announced as applause filled the room.

A standard 10% commission to the auction house was paid by the unidentified buyer, bringing the price to $30.8 million.

"This is an extraordinary moment in auction history," said Christopher J. Burge, chairman of Christie's North America. "The incredible price was 2 1/2 times the previous record for any manuscript, certainly the highest price for any work of art sold anywhere this year--and indeed, in the last four years at auction."

The previous auction record was $11.8 million for the illuminated manuscript of "The Gospels of Henry the Lion" sold by Sotheby's in 1983.

Henry T. Hopkins, director of the UCLA/Hammer Museum, was elated about the sale. "We are obviously delighted," he said in a telephone interview. "We had hoped that it would do well, but the art market has been so schizzy lately, who knew?"

Officials of the Milan foundation made their disappointment clear at a news conference after the bidding had ended.

"We thought as a foundation that the Leonardo da Vinci belongs to our cultural heritage and obviously we wanted to bring it back really badly," a spokesman said. "It will remain outside Italy, and we are very disappointed."

When Hammer purchased the codex at London Christie's auction with funds provided by Occidental, his only competition was the reserve price set by the seller. Hammer gave it his own name after the purchase.

Originally, UCLA/Hammer Museum officials said the sale of Leonardo's work--which in the museum's collection was second in value only to the painting "Hospital at Saint-Remy" by Vincent van Gogh--was needed to set up a reserve fund against a $400-million suit by Joan Weiss, the niece of Hammer's late wife, seeking half of the tycoon's estate, including his art collection.

On Aug. 3, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Henry W. Shatford dismissed the suit, ruling that no evidence existed to support the claim that Hammer had cheated his wife out of her fair share of artworks and other property acquired during their 33-year marriage.

Questions about the propriety of the sale of the codex arose in June, when the auction was announced. The American Assn. of Museums' Code of Ethics for Museums states that proceeds from the sale of artworks from museum collections should not be used "for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

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