♦ The Armand Hammer & Deaccession

Rachel Brown

The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture Center (AHMACC), or more commonly known as just the Hammer, is a university art museum located in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, California (Figure 1).  The University of California Los Angeles’ Art and Architecture department operates the museum. It is renowned for its collection of modern art, but has also been a topic of controversy during more recent times.  The museum’s director is Ann Philbin, and in its mission statement it states that it explores the capacity of arts effect on our lives, and hopes to assist in the enrichment process. Through its collections, exhibitions and programs, the Hammer explores the intensity and diversity of artistic expression that has taken place throughout our history with an emphasis on modern and contemporary art. The main goal of the Hammers mission is the acknowledgment that artists play an essential role in all aspects of the human experience and existence. The Hammer claims to advance UCLA’s mission by contributing to the intellectual lives of not only the University but the world beyond as well.[1]

The museum officially opened in November of 1990. It was founded by Dr. Armand Hammer and was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes.  When it first opened its doors it was not a university art museum, that transition happened later.  Originally the museum housed only Dr. Hammer’s personal collection of paintings, as well as one of the largest collections of works on paper by the artist Honoré Daumier, which was also part of Dr. Hammer's collection.  In the same year that it opened, Dr. Hammer died, causing all construction to come to an abrupt halt and leaving numerous projects unfinished.  In 1992, negotiations to begin partnership with its neighboring university UCLA began, and they were finalized by 1994.  Henry T. Hopkins became the museum's administrator in that year and remained so until 1998.  Hopkins is the person responsible for the start of the controversy surrounding the Hammer which stemmed from his selling of The Codex Leicester (Figure 2), Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscript, in order to establish a reserve fund for possible legal problems that had to do with Hammers estate. Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corporation bought the Codex at Christie’s auction house for $30.8 million, originally thought to only be worth around $10 million.[2]

Today the Hammer’s exhibitions showcase contemporary and historical work in all forms of artistic media. The Museum states that it is committed to promoting cultural education and understanding and to presenting the works of unappreciated artists. In addition to pieces from its permanent collections, the museum has a chain of temporary exhibitions, including what they call Hammer Projects, which are all accompanied by public educational programs.[3] Their current claim to placing great emphasis on public education could be seen as contradictory when looking at past actions such as the selling of the invaluable manuscript, removing it from the public and placing in the hands of a collector.

This same type of controversy has affected many art museums. The reasoning behind these conflicts and disagreements is what differs from museums to museum. Dr. Hammer owned the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci before it was sold to Bill Gates. Leonardo documented his ideas and plans throughout his life in the forms of illustrations and writings. These were not usually organized but in some cases they were grouped by theme, and the Codex Leicester is such a case.[4] In 1482, Leonardo moved to Milan in order to pursue work as an engineer, and so he made a list of all the skills he had and what he could provide to aid the ruler of the time, Ludivico Sforza.[5] Leonardo offered Sforza his secret thoughts and inventions geared for defense.  Among these were cars protected my armor, engines, methods of protection, tunneling ideas, canons, bridges, and modes of demolition. 

Along with his ideas in military engineering he offered intuitive ways to construct buildings and effective methods of conducting water.  Due to the fact that he was trying to leave his past as an artist behind him, he briefly mentions his skills as a sculptor and painter. In the Codex Leicester, Leonardo offers insight into his world and into him imaginative thought and ideas.  According to Gill he compiled the Codex Leicester between the years1507-1513, but the exact date is unknown. In his 72-page manuscript he lists his theories and ponderings about the world we live in. He explores astronomy with writings and illustrations involving the moon and geology with his thoughts and explanations regarding fossils, but the core of his manuscript is about water and its power.[6]  Here is excerpt of one his writing on water from his manuscript, which provides insight into his wonderful, and genius thoughts, “If a man has a lake of blood in him whereby the lungs expand and contract in breathing, the earth’s body has its oceanic sea which likewise expands and contracts every six hours as the earth breathes.”[7]

This manuscript is an invaluable piece of history and could serve as an immense source of educational gain for students, researchers, and for the public in general.  The Codex was part of Leonardo’s estate, which he left to his pupil and friend Francesco Melzi after his death.  In later years it passed from the sculptor Guglielmo Della Porta and then to the painter Giuseppe Gezzi who then sold it to Thomas Coke in 1717.  Coke eventually becomes the Earl of Leicester, hence the name the Codex Leicester.  In 1980 the founder of the Hammer Museum, Armand Hammer, who tried to change the name of the manuscript to the Codex Hammer, purchased it and it became part of the museums collection.[8]  

After Hammer’s death, and after the museums had transitioned into being a university art museum, is when the new director Henry Hopkins decided to place it up for auction.  The agreement between the university and the museum stipulated that works in the collection may be placed in escrow and sold to establish a reserve fund to pay legal costs, discharge financial obligations and fund cash flow deficits from the bond portfolio.  It also stated that the Codex may be sold or encumbered at any time[9]. According to the June 1994 issue of the monthly Art Newspaper, Hopkins stated that the Codex was among works in the Hammer collection being held in escrow as a guarantee against any financial obligation that might result from a lawsuit filed in 1990 on behalf of Joan Weiss, the niece and sole heir to the fortune of Hammer's wife, Frances, who died in 1989.  Hopkins did not deny the report but declined to comment further on how the money would be used.

            The term that describes incidents like this and is one that most art historians are familiar with is deaccession.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is defined as “to sell or otherwise dispose of an item in a collection.”  Hopkins received much scrutiny and criticism for selling the priceless work of Leonardo.[10]  The money was finally released to the museum in 2002 as an endowment, but again the controversy continued. This time it was about how the interest should be used. 

            Should it only be used for art endeavors, which would be following the ethical code, or should it also be used for the museums’ needs as well?  Most would agree that following the strict ethical code would be the ideal situation.  University Museums play a crucial educational role in the art field, what a decision is made to sell and remove a work from a collection it jeopardizes the access that students and the public will have to that work. To make sure the public is getting what they deserve, Attorney Generals often challenge the actions of museums towards their own collections.[11]

            Museum collections are seen as belonging to the public as a source of enrichment.  With this fact arises the problem of public vs. private.  Conley notes of two high profile examples of such a case, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation.  Both of these museums attempted deaccession, and the Attorney General stepped in and helped them both return to normalcy.  The American Association of Museums accreditation standards require that museums identify the community they are to serve.  Also, the standards require that an accredited museum focus its mission statement on education, public service, and accountability. Finally, the standards require that accredited museums institute ethics policies that favor the public and collection maintenance policies that emphasize the public nature of the museum missions.”[12]

            Chen argues that the issue of deaccession should be handled by museum professionals and the public they serve, and that trust and non-legal actions are the best solutions.  He gives an example that takes place in September 1970 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art learned that Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja was up for auction. This painting was one of Velazquez’s masterpieces, and it was first exhibited in the Pantheon in 1650. The Metropolitan bought the work for just over $5.5 million, during that time it was a grandiose price for a single work of art. After the painting was exhibited, a New York Times editorial said that despite the price, “the Metropolitan’s acquisition of this superb painting enhances the quality of its great collection and permanently enriches the life of the city.”[13]  This seemed the case until 1972 when it was discovered that The Metropolitan had been secretly selling works from their modern art collection to pay for the pricey painting.  Because of this, the museum was required to alert the Attorney General whenever a work of art was sold for over $5,000.[14]

This situation brought deaccession into the public’s view and has since caused major criticism of museum boards.  When is it appropriate for the law to become involved? What standards do these museums professionals need to be held to by law?  Chen argues that if museums had a strict internal set of standards regarding deaccession and that if the board members adhered to them, then this would be enough to handle challenges. He discusses the limits of law in resolving management conflicts such as deaccession, and that the trust standard when procedurally followed is concerned with whether or not trustees are deliberative in their decision making.  It does not grant authority to review the merits of the decisions.

             In a museum environment, education should be a top priority.  In her thesis which was written for Virginia Commonwealth University (Masters of Art Education), Lanette McNeil talks about the importance of the relationships between the University, the University Museum, the students, and the faculty.  Unfortunately there are times when the faculty, from both the universities and the museums, put their own goals and agendas before the sole purpose of University Museums which is education.  In a survey she conducted, McNeil interviewed twenty-four different participants in regards to how the faculty members at different universities viewed their university’s art museum. Her findings give a different perspective and unique insight that could have only been achieved through her interviews. [15] Participants stated that the faculty usually had their own agenda, and that it was difficult to receive help from them without allowing them full control. Several people indicated that the faculty does not value the museum educator’s role in teaching university students. Education and value of growth is often put on the backburner for one’s own personal gain.[16]

In order to hopefully come to a positive conclusion, Ann Philbin, the current director, took the matter to the Association of Art Museum Directors.  The directors granted an exemption to the usual restrictions because of the fact that the museum had such a turbulent beginning. Philbin reported to the Los Angeles Times that the museum now uses half the interest, which is about $1 million a year to purchase works of art, and the other half for exhibitions and programs that the museum holds.[17]  Philbin eventually had to deal with much worse in 2007 when the museum and the Armand Hammer Foundation announced they were going to separate and divide the $305 million art collection accumulated by Hammer and owned by the foundation.[18]

Armand Hammer’s grandson, Michael A. Hammer didn’t think the museum was following the necessary requirements to present work under Hammer’s name.  These problems made the museum vulnerable to a reversionary clause that permitted the foundation to claim back the collection and some funds. This new agreement gave the museum 103 works valued at $250 million which included paintings by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and John Singer Sargent. During this time is when they received 7,500 works by nineteenth-century French satirist Honoré Daumier along with his contemporaries, which the museum is so well known for. They also received a group of paintings that valued at $55 million from a private collector which are available as loans to museums.[19] 

The Hammer Museum was able to recover from its tumultuous past.  Ann Philbin told the Los Angeles Times that she was miserable during all of the discourse, but that she is thrilled over the way things have been going in more recent times. To her, the museum is now better than ever and she says in her interview with the magazine that, “We have come out of our teenage years. We are now a young adult. And with maturity comes responsibility.”  The museum is planning on expanding the gallery space in 2020, and it will use its bond portfolio, currently valued at about $55 million, to purchase the building that houses the museum and Occidentals sixteen-story headquarters.

The instance at the Hammer Museum involving Leonardo’s manuscript is just one of the many examples that could be given showing the negativity associated with deaccession. The deaccession of works of art can cause immense public backlash and makes room for proceedings against art museums and their boards. Today, ongoing and current lawsuits focus on two contrasting ideas. Whether directors of non-profit corporations should be held to the communal standard of care and ethics, or whether they should be held to the trust standard of care, which is the idea that the museums would make the fundamentally right choice on their own with no need for legal interventions.

Commentators advocate applying the more exacting trust standard to deaccessions. Inadequate monitoring in the non-profit setting enables greater incentives for museum boards to express and carry out more care than is obligatory by law. The trust standard creates those incentives both by forcing board members to deliberate cautiously before reaching a decision, and by limiting the scope of immunity.[20] In a perfect world we could know without a doubt that the trust standard should be the measure of non-profit directors’ conduct.  Situations that have taken place at The Hammer and other museums involving precious works of art make it obvious that we aren’t quite there yet.


 Figure 1

 “The Armand Hammer Museum.” October 12, 2007. Kendall Giles. Accessed March 12, 2011 http://www.kendallgiles.com/kegblog/2007/10/trip_to_the_hammer_museum.html

Figure 2

“The Codex Leicester.” February 17, 2007. Wikipedia. Accessed March 12, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vinci_-_Hammer_2A.jpg



Chen, Sue. Art Deaccessions and the Limits of Fiduciary Duty. Durham, North Carolina.  Law Dissertation. Duke Law School. June 2009. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/studentpapers/1. (accessed March 9, 2011)

Conley, Sean. "Paint A New Picture: The Artist-Museum Partnership Act and the Opening of New Markets for Charitable Giving." Journal of Art, Technology & Intellectual Property Law 20, no. 1 (Fall2009 2009): 89-25. http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cookie,uid&db=a9h&AN=48307236&site=ehost-live&scope=site.Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 9, 2011).

McNeil, Lanette. The Educational Role of the Art Museum and its Collections in the Teaching of University Undergraduate and Graduate Students. Richmond, Virginia. MFA thesis. Virginia Commonwealth University. May 2011. http://hdl.handle.net/10156/2818.(accessed February 26, 2011).

Muchnich, Suzanne. The Hammer Museum's striking rise. Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2009. Art Section.

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-ca-philbin18-2009oct18,0,7398820.story. (accessed February 26).

Newman, Sharan. The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code. New York: The Berkley Publishing Press, 2005.

The Hammer Museum. http://hammer.ucla.edu. 2008. (Accessed February 22).

[1] The Hammer Museum. 2008. http://hammer.ucla.edu/. (accessed March 2011).

[2]Eoin Gill. 2007.” Leonardo-The Engineer Who Also Painted.” Engineers Journal 61, 6: (August 2007), 371.

[3] The Hammer Museum. 2008. http://hammer.ucla.edu/. (accessed March 2011).

[4] Eoin Gill. 2007.” Leonardo-The Engineer Who Also Painted.” Engineers Journal 61, 6: (August 2007), 371.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 372

[7] James S. Ackerman. Daedalus. Vol. 127, No. 1, Science in Culture (Winter, 1998), p. 213.

[8] Sharan Newman. The Real History of the Davinci Code. (New York : Berkley, 2005). 26.

[9] Muchnic.1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sean Conley.” Journal of Art, Technology & Intellectual Property Law” 20, no. 1 (Fall2009 2009): 98.

[12] Ibid. 

[13] Sue Chen. Art Deaccessions and the Limits of Fiduciary Duty. Durham, South Carolina. (Duke Law, Duke Law Student Papers Series. Paper 1. 2009) 104

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lanette McNeil. The Educational Role Of The Art Museum And Its Collection in the Teaching of Undergraduate and Graduate Students.  (MFA thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2010).

[17]Suzanne Muchnic. The Hammer’s Museum striking rise. Los Angeles Times. October 19 2009. p. 1.

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Sue Chen. Art Deaccessions and the Limits of Fiduciary Duty. Durham, South Carolina. (Duke Law, Duke Law Student Papers Series. Paper 1. 2009) p. 143.