Microsoft’s Gates Revealed as Leonardo’s Mystery Buyer : Auction: Purchase of Codex Hammer creates a new role for computer industry giant. The manuscript will be displayed in Italy prior to a world tour, an aide said.


Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates was identified Saturday as the anonymous buyer of an illustrated manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci that sold at auction for a record $30.8 million.

Gates’ purchase on Friday of the scientific manuscript by the Italian Renaissance master has created a new role for the computer industry giant, several art experts said. Formerly known to the museum world as a champion of digitized images--and something of a threat to the integrity of original artworks--he is now cast as the American savior of a rare, 72-page document, laboriously written and illustrated by an artist’s hand.

Gates, 39, who was listed this year by Forbes magazine as the nation’s richest man, with assets of $9.2 billion, could not be reached for comment, but Microsoft spokeswoman Mich Matthews said Saturday that Gates plans to display the manuscript in Italy for one year and then send it on a worldwide tour of museums.


If those plans develop, Gates also will likely emerge as a public-spirited supporter of a unique, hand-made treasure that predates computer technology by four centuries.

Leonardo’s vast scientific treatise, known as the Codex Hammer, was sold at Christie’s New York auction house on behalf of the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. The museum was founded in 1990 by Hammer, the late chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp., and the university took over its management in April.

Museum officials consigned the valuable document to auction to establish a reserve fund as a hedge against potential legal expenses incurred by Hammer’s estate. Christie’s had estimated the value of the Leonardo at over $10 million. Hammer purchased it in 1980 at a London auction for the then-record price of $5.62 million.

Immediately following the Friday morning sale, Christie’s identified the buyer only as an anonymous private collector. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer later disclosed that the new owner is Gates, whose computer software empire is based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond.

Representatives of the UCLA/Hammer Museum greeted Gates’ purchase as an auspicious development. “That’s good news,” museum director Henry T. Hopkins said. “And it makes perfect sense. There’s a certain logic to a scientific whiz being interested in a scientific manuscript.”

Hopkins also praised Gates’ reported plans to make the document available to the public. “He may find pleasure in having it out and about. I would hope so,” Hopkins said.


Museum trustee Eli Broad also welcomed the news. “It’s a good thing,” Broad said. “I’m delighted that the manuscript will stay in the United States, and that it will not go to Seoul or even to Italy, or get hidden away in a vault in Switzerland.”

Prior to the sale, Christie’s had taken the manuscript on tour to Milan, Zurich, Seoul and Tokyo, leading to speculation that the buyer would be from a foreign country. The under-bidder at the auction was Milan’s Cariplo Foundation, which is backed by one of Italy’s largest banks.

The news created something of a sensation in Gates’ hometown. “This bodes well for Seattle,” Mary Gardner Neill, director of the Seattle Art Museum said in a telephone interview. “I haven’t talked to Bill Gates, but we hope that the manuscript will go on public view. I will do everything I can to see that it is displayed at our museum at the earliest possible date.”

Gates became known in the art world as an adversarial figure in the mid-1980s when his representatives began to approach museums in an effort to buy reproduction rights to artworks for an immense digital image bank. The use of the images had not been determined, leading museum professionals to worry that selling reproduction rights to Gates would lead to a plethora of undignified art images on coffee mugs, T-shirts and shower curtains.

Although Gates only sought to buy non-exclusive reproduction rights, museum officials also feared that his enterprise would diminish the income that art museums receive from selling one-time reproduction rights to works in their collections.

The issue became such a hot topic of discussion that the Assn. of Art Museum Directors staged its annual meeting in Seattle last June and featured Gates as keynote speaker. In his speech, Gates told the directors that technology is a fact of life with which they would have to deal. But he also attempted to allay fears that digital reproductions will replace museum audiences with mouse potatoes who only look at art on computer screens.


Some of these concerns dissipated as museums have entered the computer age by developing interactive programs for education and outreach. In the meantime, Microsoft has published “Art Gallery,” a CD-ROM featuring more than 2,000 images from the collection of London’s National Gallery. Another Gates’ company, Continuum Productions Corp. in Bellevue, Wash., has purchased non-exclusive reproduction rights to artworks in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum, the Russian Art Museum in St. Petersburg and the Barnes Foundation in Merion Station, Pa.

Gates also has become an art world player by developing an interactive computer program for the Seattle Art Museum. According to Neill, the museum is partly responsible for his purchase of the Leonardo manuscript. Chiyo Ishikawa, the museum’s associate curator of European painting, notified Gates about the auction of the Hammer Codex and suggested that he buy it, Gardner said.

Not previously known as a champion of original artworks, Gates has designed a system for projecting large digitalized images of paintings on high-definition TV screens built into the walls of his new home, creating a changing array of masterpieces.

Although art experts generally consider the Leonardo to be more significant as a scientific document than an artwork, the manuscript is the first important piece by a major artist that Gates is known to have purchased.