Milan’s big showing of a Da Vinci notebook recalls L.A.'s Leonardo that got away
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In light of recent controversies, most folks who care about art know that it’s a really big deal for a museum to even think of unloading a masterpiece. (Consider Brandeis University’s attempt to sell off the collection of its Rose Art Museum to rescue the university from budgetary woes, brought on partly by some of its major donors’ fondness for investing with Bernie Madoff.)
The Hammer Museum might wish for the case of the long-gone Leicester Codex -- Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten, illustrated notebook that’s primarily about the properties of water -- to be water under the bridge. But once you auction off Da Vinci’s handiwork for $28 million, as the Hammer did 15 years ago this month in the granddaddy of L.A. deaccessionings, well, people tend to remember.
Especially when there’s news that a library in Milan, Italy, is going to get six years of exhibitions out of episodically displaying all 1,119 pages of its much larger Da Vinci notebook, the Atlantic Codex.
Plans at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which opened in 1609, call for showing 44 or 45 pages at a time, for three months, then cycling in the next group of pages. That’s to save the light-sensitive work from potential damage from overexposure. The first set of pages went on display in September, divided between two venues – the library itself and the nearby Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, which also houses Leonardo’s “The Last Supper.”
The Ambrosiana is run by Catholic priests, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article on the exhibition. They probably take a longer institutional view of their obligations than your typical American museum board -- after all, the library has managed to hang onto its codex for nearly 400 years, as opposed to the Hammer’s four.
According to an Associated Press report, the Atlantic Codex, originally all in one volume, was re-bound in 12 separate volumes during the 1960s and 1970s -- and stayed that way until Ambrosiana authorities decided to unbind Leonardo’s pages for easier display and study. That job fell to Benedictine nuns, who painstakingly melted away the wax bindings.
As for L.A.’s lost 72-page codex, which Da Vinci wrote in the early 1500s using his famous backward, mirror-image script, the story is more convoluted.
Current owner Bill Gates paid $30.8 million, including Christie’s 10% commission, for it in 1994 and has regularly sent the volume on display to museums and libraries. It was first seen on a homecoming tour of Italy, then at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Seattle Art Museum. There have been subsequent visits to France, Japan and Ireland.
Before the Microsoft multi-billionaire, its owners had been the earls of Leicester in England, dating back to 1717, and Armand Hammer, the Occidental Petroleum tycoon who bought it for more than $5 million when a latter-day earl cashed it in at auction in 1980. Hammer changed the notebook’s name from the Leicester Codex to the Hammer Codex, and Gates changed it back. In November 1990, the month before his death at 92, Hammer opened his Westwood museum as a repository for the codex and the rest of his art collection.
The collection, codex and all, had long been promised to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but Hammer changed his mind in 1988 and built his own museum to house it. He’d been alienated by LACMA’s refusal to meet his demands for, in effect, his own museum within the one that had been up and running since 1965. Hammer wanted his art to stand alone in its own galleries, tended by a staff that would answer not to the museum leadership, but to him or his Hammer Foundation. And he wanted the names of other donors removed from galleries that were to be his alone.
LACMA’s loss was the Hammer Museum’s genesis, and it set the stage for the codex’s exodus.
Why would a museum sell such an artifact? A Da Vinci? The reason given at the time was that the Hammer, whose management had been taken over by UCLA in 1993, needed a cash cushion to shield it against possible payouts from a lawsuit in which a niece of Armand Hammer’s deceased wife was claiming half of his estate -- the art collection included. A judge threw out the niece’s case three months before the auction, but the Hammer put its Da Vinci on the block anyway.
Museum leaders said they were concerned that the niece might appeal, and that other unspecified ‘legal matters’ could arise. They also put out a statement saying, in effect, that it made sense for an art museum to sacrifice a manuscript that was more scientific than artistic -- skirting the broader issue of whether there should be a place at UCLA, a scientific and medical research university, for a document such as the codex. Furthermore, the Hammer said, its Da Vinci bundle would ensure that the art collection, highlighted by two Rembrandts and a Van Gogh, would stay intact.
Writing four years before the Codex brouhaha, at the museum’s opening, Times art critic Christopher Knight had said that Armand Hammer’s collection was not even “close to being of the very first rank.” His museum, Knight wrote, was a place where “an occasional masterpiece buoys the more abundant mediocrity that surrounds it…. This handful of excellent works is certainly matched by a slew of unspeakable paintings … or, most often, merely pedestrian examples by artists with celebrated names … [that] simply do not rank as museum pictures.”
The Hammer went on to adopt a new collecting and exhibitions tack that emphasizes contemporary art and drawings and has used the $28-million codex haul as an endowment whose interest has funded art acquisitions and general museum expenses. In 2001, the Hammer got a special advisory dispensation from the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, saying it was OK for it to use some of the codex proceeds for purposes other than buying new art. Normally, AAMD’s voluntary guidelines are adamant that the only proper use for money a museum earns by selling artworks is to buy other art; early this year, the AAMD censured New York’s National Academy Museum for doing otherwise with proceeds from the sale of two 19th century American landscape paintings.
Mimi Gaudieri, then-executive director of the art museum directors’ group, told The Times in 2007 that the Hammer’s exemption was granted partly because of all the upheaval it had gone through in its early years, and partly because Leonardo’s scientific manuscript “wasn’t a Renoir.” (Interestingly enough, a Hammer-owned Renoir was among the works Knight had dismissed in his 1990 review as one of the collection’s “appalling canvases.”)
In 2007, a new agreement was struck between the Hammer Museum and the Armand Hammer Foundation, ending the partnership that had been forged between them when UCLA took over the museum’s operation. To consummate the split, the parties divided the 195 paintings that Hammer had given to his museum. Under the new arrangement, instead of being obligated to keep at least 140 of the oil baron’s paintings on display, the museum now had to show only 35 of the works he had given -- and they didn’t have to be just paintings, but could include samples from the 7,500 drawings by 19th century French satirical artist Honore Daumier that Hammer had given to the museum.
“The Hammer will be a better museum. It won’t be burdened by having to show a lot of substandard paintings,” said John Walsh, the former J. Paul Getty Museum director who helped the Hammer Museum and the Hammer Foundation decide how to divide the paintings.
The Hammer’s endowment from the sale of its Da Vinci codex has grown to $37 million, and has generated $1.7 million for the museum in each of the two past fiscal years, spokeswoman Sarah Stifler said. The museum uses half the money for expenses other than art purchases, she said -- budget pressures due to the poor economy having slowed efforts to use the codex income solely for buying new art, as called for by museum-world guidelines. A Bill Gates spokesman, John Pinette, says the Leicester Codex isn’t currently on display, and that he had no information about where it will be seen next. Will it ever wend its way back to L.A.? Pinette wouldn’t speculate. He said that Gates usually ties its appearances to places where it will be ‘of particular interest’ and enhance ‘a particular moment.’
Meanwhile, if you ever find yourself in Milan, where a Leonardo is a Leonardo is a Leonardo, you can check out its big brother and take in “The Last Supper” too.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos, from top: Leonardo Da Vinci self-portrait via Associated Press; Leicester Codex on display in New York in 1996, by Richard Drew/AP; Armand Hammer by Rosemary Kaul; Bill Gates, Lisa Poole/AP