♦ Unrest at the Armand Hammer Museum

Lisa M. Gerben
Leonardo Da Vinci's Codex. (pagefarm.net)

In 1994, the Armand Hammer Museum’s Da Vinci Codex was sold at Christie’s auction house to Microsoft Billionaire Bill Gates for approximately $31 million dollars, leaving the art and academic world up in arms.  Through this exploration of fact, history and opinion, we will investigate both the academic argument as well as the entrepreneurial argument while recognizing from the start that the characters in this saga--Armand Hammer, founder of the Hammer Museum; billionaire oil tycoon Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci infamous artist and scientist--makes for a hot controversial news story that almost everyone can have an opinion about. 

From an academic standpoint, when entering the art world there is a certain ethical code of conduct that most everyone should observe, but is very often ignored. The goal is to protect the public’s rights to view the art.  On the other hand, the academic community seems to take powerful benefactors for granted, treating them as though it is their responsibility as a wealthy individual to contribute to the longevity of the arts rather than a choice.  They revile private collectors without acknowledging that today’s private collectors are tomorrow’s museum founders and benefactors.  That being said, the public fear is that the private collectors generally view their purchases primarily as investments without acknowledging the responsibility they have also acquired along with the masterpiece.

                                                                       Armand Hammer

To understand the real history of the Hammer Museum, it’s important to start at the beginning with Armand Hammer himself.  Armand Hammer was born in 1898 to a father who was a second generation Russian American.  After completing his degree at Columbia Medical School in 1921, he went on to assist in the famines by arranging the import of grain to Russia and developing their foreign trade. Once successful, he obtained several concessions to operate asbestos mine (at the time no one knew the dangers of asbestos) and to manufacture pencils in Russia (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) [6].

There have been several recounts of how Hammer became involved in the collection of Russian art and, much like the rest of Hammer’s life, there is what happened and there is what everyone said happened and little way to know the difference. It is safe to say that Hammer was successful in what he did because of the complex relationships he had with influential people. Between 1921 and 1930, Armand and his brother Victor, who had studied art, lived in a thirty room mansion called the Brown House.  During that time, Victor was in charge of collecting items to fill the house, which were readily available at an inexpensive price since the well to do Russians had left behind their belongings when fleeing the country after the Bolshevik Revolution. This left all their valuables open to looters or the government.  In 1926 Russia no longer wanted Hammer’s capitalistic endeavors and he lost his pencil concession to the government.  It was said that Hammer negotiated permission to export the art from Russia by paying 15-35% taxes on the items as long as they registered them with the Moscow Museum Administration [1].  The foreign collection of Russian art was not supported by the people as some accounts would have us believe.  Nikolai Tolstoy wrote, “At the time of the revolution, there occurred massive expropriation of the wealth of the imperial family, the aristocracy, and other rich.  Many art treasures were acquired by the new Bolshevik ruling class, but most were retained by them collectively as property of the state.  Almost at once a number of rich and unscrupulous foreign entrepreneurs descended on Petrograd and Moscow like kites on a rotting carcass.  Very soon they came to profitable arrangements with the Soviet authorities, whereby they exported shipments of art treasures at prices which in the West were knockdown, but in Soviet Russia provided valuable foreign currency at a time when the economy as suffering for ever worse difficulties.” 

Another account of how Armand Hammer became involved in the Russian art business is much darker, and falls right in line with what Tolstoy wrote about the government needing foreign currency badly.  The Soviet government had acquired tons of artifacts from the wealthy that they had been not able to export due to embargoes and pending law suits from those who had their family heirlooms stolen.  Stalin put Anastas Mikoyan in charge of foreign trade, who then enlisted Armand Hammer to assist him in selling some of the art [4].  Hammer set up a gallery in New York called L’Ermitage Galleries to sell the Russian Art, which was generally unsuccessful and nearly went bankrupt several times. After importing massive amounts of Russian art and not able to sell it in New York due to injunctions by  the former Czar’s family members along with many other problems, Hammer proposed something shocking and deeply disturbing [4].

The Great Depression, much like today during our own recession, led many people to do things they would not do under normal circumstances.  Hammer sent word to American Midwest department stores that he had privately acquired a Romanoff Treasure and wished to “exhibit” it, which really meant sell it, and split profits with the store. Hammer said that the show was much like a ‘traveling circus’ which started in St. Louis and circulated throughout middle America.  After the valuable items had been sold off to the everyday person shopping in the department store, Hammer resorted to creating counterfeit works of art and selling them off as the real deal.   He then opened the Hammer Galleries which was a more reputable business than his ‘traveling circus.’ [4]  For all of this theatrical behavior, none of these endeavors actually made a substantial profit.  They stayed out of debt, but between splitting profits with the department stores and sending money back to Russia for the inventory; Hammer himself didn’t get very rich [4].

Hammer was involved in several other scandals, including trying to sell a phony Rembrandt that the Soviets had instructed him to sell as his own [4]. This made him look like an unreliable collector of serious art, but it seems time and money heals all.  He became a trustee on the board of the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, never acting in their best interest though.  He once bid against them for a collection of Daumier lithographs and kept them for himself after claiming he would donate them to the museum. 

Art was always a side business to Armand Hammer, and his main source of income was through the Occidental Oil Company, which he made wildly successful.  Though his dealings in the art business were spotty and sometimes unsuccessful, his business dealings made him a great amount of money.

Throughout this essay I have not explained that Hammer had married and divorced many times over, along with keeping several mistresses at all times.  One of these mistresses was named Martha Kaufman, who was hired to advise and collect art for Hammer. Hammer’s wife, Frances, did not support this so Kaufman legally changed her name to Hilary Gibson and learned to be another person by changing her hair, her voice, and her mannerisms [3]. Kaufman was critical in the acquisition of the Leonardo Da Vinci Codex, as well as The Hammer Museum, which she became the director of. 

                                                                    The Hammer Museum

This history of Armand Hammer is meant to place the story that we all know in context.  Hammer misled the public by implying that he had personally purchased the Codex for $5.8 million from Christie’s at auction. As it turns out, the funds were obtained from Occidental Oil not only to purchase the Codex, but also to build the Hammer Museum [4]. Kaufman designed The Hammer Museum to be a high revenue hot spot for Los Angeles residents to throw extravagant parties. A class action law suit was filed against Occidental in 1989 by its shareholders who claimed that this was not a proper use of company funds and that the Codex belonged to the shareholders [3]. Occidental had used approximately $96 million in corporate funds for the Hammer Museum [4].

After Hammer’s death, Occidental had more freedom to cut its losses with the museum and get its shareholders' support back.  Occidental brought in the University of California Los Angeles to manage the Hammer Museum for the next 99 years [5]. The Hammer Museum was stripped of its “Armand Hammer mausoleum” qualities, and instead became more of a cultural center for the Los Angeles community.  This included selling the Codex for $32 million at Christie’s to Microsoft’s Bill Gates [8].  

Given the fact that a publicly traded company actually purchased the Leonardo Da Vinci Codex with shareholder money, and built the museum to house it in with shareholder money, I personally do not believe that the sale of the Codex was unethical.  In light of everything that Armand Hammer did in his lifetime, this sale is likely the most ethical thing his name is affiliated with.  UCLA was involved with the Hammer Museum to calm Occidental shareholders, and made the museum a place where contemporary art is welcome.


[1] Weinberg, Steve, Armand Hammer: The Untold Story. (Boston: Little, Brown & Company Ltd. 1989).

[2] Epstein, Edward Jay, Dossier: the secret history of Armand Hammer. (New York: Orion Business, 1998).

[3] Blumay, Carl with Edwards, Henry, The Dark Side of Power The Real Armand Hammer.(New York: Simon & Schuster 1992).

[4] Considine, Bob, The Remarkable Life of Dr. Armand Hammer. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers Ltd 1975).

[5] Young, Paul. 2007. "Independence for Hammer Museum." ARTnews 106, no. 3: 62. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2011).

[6] 2010. "Armand Hammer." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2011).

[7] Lee, Rosenbaum. 1994. "Rush to Auction." New York Times, November 26. 23. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2011).

[8] Muchnic, Suzanne. 1994.“Microsoft's Gates Revealed as Leonardo's Mystery Buyer.” Los Angeles Times, November 13.

[9] Muchnic, Suzanne. 2009. “The Hammer Museum’s striking rise.” Los Angeles Times, October 18.

[10] Russell, John. 1988. “Hammer to Build a Museum.” The New York Times, January 22.