The Hammer Falls on the Public’s Trust : Commentary: UCLA/Hammer trustees ceded control of a major cultural asset, leaving the prized Leonardo da Vinci notebook to the whim of a private collector.


The UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center is just a few years old, but it has had a sorry history from the start. The tradition continues.

Friday’s public sale of an important manuscript by the great Italian painter, scientist and intellectual Leonardo da Vinci is cause for sadness and concern. Something significant has been lost, something worrisome gained.

The museum sold the 72-page notebook of scientific musings by the Renaissance master through Christie’s New York auction house, where it brought more than three times the estimated sale price. The buyer was Bill Gates, the precocious chairman of Seattle’s Microsoft Corp. and the wealthiest man in the United States.


Gates paid an auction record of $30.8 million--chump change for a fellow whose assets are estimated by Forbes magazine at $9.2 billion, but a huge windfall for the cash-strapped museum.

What has been lost? At Friday’s sale, a rare and important artifact of our common cultural heritage passed from the public realm into private hands. “We” had owned it, now “he” owns it. The public, with the Hammer museum’s trustees acting as its agents, ceded control of a major cultural asset to a private individual.


Losing an irreplaceable public asset through its transfer to the private realm is why deaccessioning--the practice of selling objects from museum collections--is always controversial. In a museum collection, an artifact is common patrimony--a source of communal inspiration, pride and intellectual sustenance. In a private collection, all bets are off.

A private collector can decide to lock the object in a vault, display it in his living room for the private pleasure of select friends, keep it sequestered from scholars or turn it into an advertising shill for the benefit of his corporation.

When the late Armand Hammer, the museum’s notorious benefactor, bought the manuscript in 1980, he promptly changed its name from the Codex Leicester, by which it had been known worldwide since 1717. He dubbed it the Codex Hammer. What’s next? The Codex Microsoft?

A Gates spokesman has said the new owner plans to display the manuscript in Italy for a year and send it on a worldwide tour of museums. Gates, who said he will not use it for business purposes, should be commended for the apparent goodwill of the idea and encouraged to follow through.


Still, he’s under no obligation. At the headline-grabbing Leonardo auction, the public gave up a lot.

If our loss of the Leonardo is sad, what’s worrisome about the sale?

The transfer was not made to protect an incomparable public asset that was in jeopardy. Instead, it was driven by an instinct for institutional self-preservation.

The 4-year-old museum sold the manuscript to create a reserve fund as “insurance” from existing or potential lawsuits against Armand Hammer’s estate, in order that the institution could be guaranteed a future under the auspices of UCLA. The formal agreement between the museum and UCLA, which took over its operation last April, provided for this sale. It further stipulates that the reserve fund can be used to cover cash-flow deficits from the Hammer Museum’s investment portfolio.

You can’t fault UCLA for shielding itself from the Hammer estate’s troubles, real or imagined. But a shield erected with money garnered from the sale of the collection is wholly inappropriate.

Deaccessioning causes an irreplaceable public loss, and a public loss can only begin to be compensated in kind--apples for apples, not apples for oranges. That’s why deaccessioning is discouraged, in general, and why the code of ethics established by the American Assn. of Museums says--unequivocally--that income from deaccessioning can only be used for further acquisitions (or, secondarily, for direct care of the collection).


Without the Leonardo, there’s one less reason for the Hammer Museum to exist. For a museum with a mostly minor collection, a museum created solely to glorify the vanity of its founder, there is even a question of whether the institution is worthy of such a salvage operation.


The UCLA/Hammer Museum gaily ventured out onto this slippery slope. Now, the huge financial windfall from the record-breaking sale may send them sliding. Eli Broad, a trustee and spokesman for the Hammer, has said the museum’s board will consider whether some of the unexpected income should be used to establish an exhibition fund or complete the still-unfinished building. That’s intolerable.

The museum was right about one thing: A scientific journal is a misfit in an art collection. Like anything made by Leonardo, his recorded ruminations on water and geology do illuminate his art; however, the notebook is not itself a work of art. Almost all the manuscript’s 300 drawings are diagrammatic marginalia--engrossing little doodles by a genius, but doodles nonetheless.

The manuscript belongs in a great historical library--say, the Huntington Library in San Marino, to name the most obvious nearby candidate. The UCLA/Hammer Museum should have transferred it there. If a hedge against lawsuits was needed, perhaps the deed on its goofy Westwood building could have been pressed into service.

It’s too late for “shoulds” and “coulds,” of course. Now the obligation is to restrict the income from the Leonardo sale to an acquisition fund.

Let’s see; at $30 million, the UCLA/Hammer Museum’s acquisition endowment would be 10 times larger than those at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art combined . So here’s worry No. 2: Having squandered the public’s Leonardo, what assurances have we that the museum will be an appropriate caretaker for future acquisitions?

If ours was a morally functional universe, the Leonardo manuscript would today still be safely ensconced in a public institution. Instead, it has been sold off just in case the museum needs to pay lawyers, litigants, building contractors and others down the road. It’s an astonishing legacy.