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Bill Gates Owns One Of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Manuscripts. Here’s How Much It’s Worth.

By News Creatives Authors , in Billionaires , at January 1, 1970

In this episode of “Priceless,” staff writer Michela Tindera and deputy wealth editor Chase Peterson-Withorn explain how Forbes determines the value of a one-of-a-kind Leonardo da Vinci manuscript that Bill Gates purchased in 1994.

Read the episode transcript here:

ARCHIVAL CLIP-STEPHEN MASSEY, CHRISTIE’S: The Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer. Fifty-five hundred to start. Fifty-five—five-point-five million dollars to start it. (crowd laughs) Good start. Five-point-five million dollars to start.

MICHELA TINDERA: So it’s 1994, and we’re listening to an auction in a salesroom at Christie’s in Manhattan.

MASSEY: Still with me then at five-million five hundred thousand, five-million eight hundred thousand, five-million eight hundred thousand. Six million dollars, thank you. Six-million five hundred thousand, seven million.

TINDERA: On sale is a one-of-a kind Leonardo da Vinci manuscript known as the Codex Hammer.

MASSEY: At 16 million, 17 million. On the last telephone, 18 million. At 18 million in this room. Nineteen million on the telephone.

TINDERA: Now the audience in the room doesn’t know this, but a representative for Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates is bidding on the phone.

MASSEY: Nineteen-million five hundred thousand I’ll be happy to take.

TINDERA: Gates is up against a group from a bank in Milan that’s sitting in the front of the Christie’s salesroom.

MASSEY: Twenty-five million, twenty-six million.  

TINDERA: The bidding is heating up.

MASSEY: Twenty-seven million. Twenty-eight million. At $28 million it’s away from the room now and on the telephone at $28 million. At $28 million. It’s on the last telephone at $28 million. I’ll give everyone time. It’s with you at $28 million. Any more? Twenty-eight million dollars, then. In this room, in—on the telephone rather, at $28 million. On the telephone in this room at $28 million.

TINDERA: But in the end …

MASSEY: 28 million.

TINDERA: The manuscript goes to Gates.

MASSEY: Thank you. (applause)

TINDERA: I’m Michela Tindera, and this is Priceless. In this episode, we’re taking you inside the world of rare books, manuscripts, and Old Masters works to tell you about how we’ve estimated the value of one very special notebook, with ties to the world’s most expensive painting ever sold at auction: the “Salvator Mundi.” For this notebook, we considered values ranging from $50 million, all the way up to $4 billion. And we’re going to show you how we narrowed that range to settle on one number.

Joining me for this is Chase Peterson-Withorn, an editor on the Forbes wealth team. Hi, Chase. Thanks for joining me.

CHASE PETERSON-WITHORN: Hi, Michela. Thanks for having me.

TINDERA: So back in November 1994, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates was 39 years old and pretty much at the top of his game. He had just gotten married to Melinda Gates on New Year’s Day of that year and was in the middle of building his multi-million-dollar mega mansion, Xanadu 2.0. He was described in our Forbes 400 issue of the magazine that year as both a “hard worker” and “brutally candid.”

CBS CLIP, CONNIE CHUNG: You know, you may be the richest man in America, or at least the second-richest man in America.

CBS CLIP, BILL GATES: Well, that’s simply based on taking the stock I own in Microsoft and doing some type of multiplication.

PETERSON-WITHORN: And in fact, that fall he had just appeared atop our Forbes 400 ranking of the richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $9.35 billion.

TINDERA: Right. And then amid all of this, he buys this one-of-a-kind Leonardo da Vinci manuscript at a Christie’s auction for $28 million.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Yeah, and Gates loves books. We reported that same year that Gates envied his friend Warren Buffett, because he had more time to spend reading than Gates did. So Gates sort of went out and bought the ultimate book. With closing fees from the auction house, it came out to $30.8 million.

TINDERA: I’m looking through a copy of what’s now called the Codex Leicester, which I purchased online for about $30. When Bill Gates bought the manuscript, rather than naming it the Codex Gates after himself, he decided to rename it the Codex Leicester after an earlier owner. And flipping through this copy, I have to say, I can’t read a word of this. That’s because da Vinci wrote it backwards, which is what he did for much of what he wrote. It’s not exactly known why he did that. But some have said that’s because he was left-handed, and he didn’t want his ink to smear. But one key difference between my version and the one Bill Gates owns is that while my version is bound in the middle, like any typical hardcover book, every page of the original Codex Leicester is held in glass to make it easier to view all the pages. So it doesn’t really look like a notebook anymore.

So of course, da Vinci never called it the Codex Leicester or the Codex Hammer. To him, it was just his collection of scientific observations and illustrations and writings, mostly focused on the study of water. It is believed to have been compiled between 1506 and 1510. In fact, it was also noted in the Codex’s 1994 auction catalogue written by late da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti, that the Mona Lisa is, “indeed a visual synthesis of Leonardo’s scientific knowledge as summed up in the Codex.”

While dozens of manuscripts like the Codex have managed to survive the centuries intact, the Codex Leicester is the only da Vinci notebook that is still in private hands. The rest are owned by museums around the world. Inside besides da Vinci’s writings, there are also about 360 drawings and diagrams throughout the manuscript. According to the Christie’s auction catalogue for the 1994 sale, the Codex was described as being in “good” and “stable” condition. Five hundred years later, the Codex is in such good condition, in part because it hasn’t changed hands many times. According to the provenance in the auction catalogue, a few Italian artists own the Codex after da Vinci’s death, including a painter named Giuseppe Ghezzi, who apparently sold it in 1717 to Thomas Coke, a man who eventually became England’s Earl of Leicester. It stayed with the Earl of Leicester’s estate until 1980, when it finally went up for auction. Oil tycoon Armand Hammer bought it that year, and 14 years later, Gates bought it at another auction.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Art is one of the toughest things we value for our lists, because the value is just so subjective, and you really don’t know what something will sell for until it hits the auction block.

TINDERA: So how much is the Codex worth today? If all we do is adjust the $30.8 million that Gates paid for it for inflation, that gets us to somewhere around $50 million today. So, I think we could legitimately set the floor at that price. It’s worth at least what Gates paid for it. But we need a lot more information than that before we make our estimate. And so, the first place we looked were the auction records for the Codex from the 1980 and the 1994 sales.

Back in 1980 according to an Associated Press report, the man who was the Earl of Leicester at the time decided to sell the Codex, which had been part of the Earl’s estate for more than 250 years. He needed to do that because in order to pay the inheritance taxes on a previous Earl of Leicester, who died in 1976, they needed to sell off some stuff. So, they decided to hold an auction through Christie’s, and it took place in London in December 1980.

PETERSON-WITHORN: The person who ended up winning the auction was Armand Hammer, the 82-year-old multimillionaire chairman of oil and gas giant Occidental Petroleum. Months earlier, he had appeared on the cover of Forbes, and he was a member of our very first Forbes 400 ranking. In 1982, he appeared on our list with an estimated net worth of $150 million.

ARCHIVAL CLIP OF ARMAND HAMMER: I guess I’m wearing a great many hats. One of my hats I wear—I’m a capitalist.

TINDERA: Hammer is also the great-grandfather of Hollywood actor Armie Hammer.

ARCHIVAL CLIP OF ARMAND HAMMER: Another hat is my hobby for collecting art. And my enjoyment in owning these wonderful works of art. And seeing these works enjoyed by people all over the world. People who often would never get a chance to visit the great museums of the world.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Armand placed the winning bid and paid about $5.6 million for the Codex, which was less than the roughly $10 million that it was reported experts thought it might sell for.

TINDERA: The Italian government had reportedly been expected to participate in the auction. But just weeks before the auction happened, a devastating earthquake struck Italy and the government ended up skipping the sale. Still, it was a record-breaking event. A New York Times story on the sale remarked that it was the highest price ever paid at auction for a manuscript. And to put into perspective, how much less art sold for 40 years ago, the sale of the Codex was the fifth-highest price for any piece of art sold at auction ever.

PETERSON-WITHORN: After the auction, he told the press, “I’m very happy with the price. I expected to pay much more. I think it’s the greatest acquisition I ever made. I’m going to show it all over the world.”

There was a bit of an odd snag with the purchase, and Forbes reported on it in 1994. Apparently, Hammer had made a habit of buying things with Occidental Petroleum money. That included footing the bill for not only the Codex he purchased for the $5 million in 1980, but also the tens of millions of dollars spent creating his own art museum in Los Angeles.

While Hammer was alive, we reported that Oxy shareholders sued three times asking to be reimbursed for what Hammer spent on art and the museum. Our 1994 story said Hammer was a master at litigation, and the aggrieved shareholders had to settle to keep building costs at $60 million. Hammer somehow convinced the courts he was increasing shareholder value. However, weeks after the grand opening of his museum, where he planned to showcase the Codex and other art he had collected over the years, Hammer died at the age of 92. After his death, Hammer’s estate became tied up in a series of new lawsuits that began with the niece of Hammer’s late wife suing for a piece of his art collection and other assets. Amid all of that the Codex went back to Christie’s in 1994, where it was once again expected to bring $10 million. This time, though, it sold for three times that in the battle we heard about at the beginning of the episode between Gates and the Italian bank.

TINDERA: Okay, so to recap, when it sold in 1980, it was expected to sell for $10 million, but ended up going for half that. When it sold in 1994, it was also expected to sell for $10 million, but ended up selling for three times that. So—what do we do with any of that? And how does that help us come up with a number for today?

PETERSON-WITHORN: Exactly. That’s why these valuations can be so tricky. In cases like these, that’s why we have to turn to the experts who know more about this than us.

TINDERA: That’s right. So first, we looked to experts in the world of rare books and manuscripts to learn about the qualities that make a book valuable. There are all sorts of factors that come into play: condition, provenance. There’s also something called primacy, which is being the first. Something like the first printing in North America, or the first time a new word was used in print. And then there’s also rarity, or how rare this exact copy or version of a book or manuscript is.

DARREN WINSTON: Once we’ve decided that the book is worth looking at for its condition, for its provenance. The first question we’re asking, but we’re going to ask it again is, “What are we actually looking at?” If it’s a first edition of Moby Dick, that’s a great thing to have.

TINDERA: That’s Darren Winston. He’s the head of the Books, Maps and Manuscripts department at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia. Freeman’s was founded in 1805, and is actually America’s oldest auction house. Earlier this summer, very fittingly, as the country’s oldest auction house, they sold a copy of the Declaration of Independence for $4.4 million.

WINSTON: So once we’ve deduced that it’s a first edition because it meets all of this criteria. Then we look at the condition, and we base the condition on what’s in our hands, and how you look at a book that’s 150, 170 years old. It then becomes a first edition of Moby Dick. And we can go into the auction record and look at previous copies of that exact same book, when it sold, where it sold, what its estimate was, what it brought…

TINDERA: But admittedly, Darren told us that he wasn’t a da Vinci, or Codex expert and was hesitant to put a value on it out of the gate. So next, we decided to try some sources who not only know Old Masters works, but they know da Vinci really well.

ROBERT SIMON: My name is Robert Simon. I’m an art dealer in New York. I’ve worked as well as an art appraiser. And my background is as an art historian.

TINDERA: Robert Simon is perhaps best known in the art world for having a very close connection to a painting that is synonymous with money, power and controversy: the “Salvator Mundi.” For those who don’t know it, it’s a painting of Christ that sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for $450 million, which is by far the most expensive work of art that’s ever sold at auction. Christie’s billed the painting as an original work by Leonardo da Vinci himself. However, other critics have disagreed with the truth of that claim. Simon’s connection to the painting is that back in 2005, he and a colleague actually sort of rediscovered the painting, which was in terrible condition. They bought it from an auction in Louisiana for just over $1,000. Simon has said that it took a couple of years after they bought the painting to become convinced himself that he was dealing with an original work by Leonardo.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Given Simon’s connections to the Salvator Mundi, and his experience running a gallery of Old Masters works, he seemed like an excellent source to speak with for this valuation. But as it turned out, he also had his own personal connection to the Codex.

TINDERA: That’s right. In 1993, Simon was hired by the trustees of the Armand Hammer Museum to do an appraisal of the Codex back when it was known as the Codex Hammer.

SIMON: This is the clipping that I had taken out of the New York Times in 1980, when it was to be auctioned when Armand Hammer bought it. So, you know, it’s something I’ve sort of been following for, you know, a good part of my life.

TINDERA: Simon shared with us his own process for how he estimated the fair market value in the appraisal he put together nearly 30 years ago. Like we did earlier in this episode, he considered the price that it sold for in 1980. He also pulled together a list of artwork that he found it to be similar to.

SIMON: My feeling was that the Codex was quite a bit more valuable than any single drawing would be. So that was kind of the basic first principle. What by Leonardo can we compare it with? And then, how do we rationalize the difference in the kind of object it is? Then I went to those other items that were of kind of the same rarity as works of the Renaissance that had been on the market.

TINDERA: In his appraisal Simon selected five comparable works all from the Renaissance era.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Two were da Vinci drawings of draperies. Both sold at Sotheby’s in Monaco on the same date in 1989. One sold for nearly $6 million, and the other for $5.2 million.

TINDERA: Simon also included another work by da Vinci: a sheet of studies including sketches of a child embracing a lamb. That sold for $3.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York in 1986. He also considered a painting done by Renaissance artist Pontormo, which was purchased by the Jay Paul Getty Museum for $35.2 million at Christie’s in 1989.

PETERSON-WITHORN: And the fifth was a drawing by Michelangelo called “The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist,” which also sold to the Getty Museum in 1993, for $6.3 million.

SIMON: These went into the mix. And trying to balance them… And of course, one of the things in doing an appraisal like this is you just don’t put them in a mix, whatever. But one tries to lay out in a rational way, why one has a higher value than the other, why one has a lesser market appeal, and then try from that to come up with a single value. And one of the other, one of the principles and differences between, say an auction estimate and an appraisal—and this is for what we call fair market value appraisal—is that we come up with a single value, understanding that it’s very rare that we kind of hit the bull’s eye, but that is the opinion of the appraiser. And that was the process. And it was a challenge. And it was, you know, a thrilling project to be involved with.

TINDERA: Ultimately, in his appraisal, which Simon submitted in December 1993. He decided that the Codex’s fair market value was $50 million. So, in discussing what the Codex might be worth today, Robert Simon brought up a recent sale of a da Vinci, which was of a teeny, tiny three-inch by three-inch drawing of a bear’s head, which sold in July of this year for $12 million. That estimate sort of got you thinking in another direction, though, right Chase?

PETERSON-WITHORN: Yeah, when I heard about that $12 million sale, I remembered that the Codex had about 360 illustrations inside of it. So I thought, “What if Gates cut up all the drawings into individual little works of art and sold them off that way? If one drawing sold for $12 million, that would mean that he could sell off this whole book clipped to pieces and earn something like $4 billion.

SIMON: It’s a truly horrific prospect. But there would, there are people in the world that would probably do that. Whoever cut it up would be pilloried forever.

TINDERA: Slicing up and selling off a beautiful manuscript or book is not without precedent, though, Robert explained to us.

SIMON: And if you look at the illuminated manuscripts that are from, you know, missiles, and you know, these are Renaissance manuscripts, many of them have been broken apart.

TINDERA: Simon talked about how there have been a certain subset of book dealers called “breakers,” who made it their job to buy books and then tear them apart, selling their illustrated pages piece by piece.

SIMON: What it does is make you realize how important the fact that the Codex has survived intact is. And so I think it’s, you know, not so much, “Let’s look at it and see what would happen if we took scissors to it and divided it up.” But just to say, “Here we have something of such significance, partly because it has survived 500 years without, you know, being destroyed.”

TINDERA: Hypothetically though, Simon explained that our logic of taking one drawing and reviewing the sale price of that to extrapolate what a whole manuscript filled with drawings might be worth was something he considered in his own appraisal. However, we should probably note that it seems unlikely that as the owner of the Codex, Gates would actually do this. He’s gone to extra lengths to make this work as a whole more accessible to the public.  

CLIP OF BILL GATES: Taking Leonardo’s notebook and translating them so everybody can understand the way that da Vinci thought a little better than before is very important.

TINDERA: That’s Gates talking for a video posted on his blog a few years ago, around the time that he exhibited the Codex Leicester in some museums in Europe. He created something he called the Codescope, which was software built to help museum-goers actually read da Vinci’s backwards scrawl.

CLIP OF BILL GATES: So here, you’re just seeing the page exactly as it looked to da Vinci. This is the mirror where we flip it around, and now here it is in English.

TINDERA: Okay, so our $4 billion estimate isn’t all that realistic. But if our maximum value isn’t $4 billion, then what is it? Well, as we mentioned, the most expensive painting ever sold at auction was the “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million. We asked Robert, if the Codex if it went up for sale again, could it compete with the Mundi’s price?

SIMON: He spent much more time as a writer, a scientist, a draftsman than he did as a painter. And so, you’ve got the painting itself is you know, much more of a rare object.

TINDERA: Robert pointed out one other unique distinction.

SIMON: The Codex is something that for most of the year, let’s say you have to keep it under lock and key and out of the light. You can’t really show it off—whether it’s to your best friends or in a museum if you’re a public institution. The “Salvator Mundi” can be exhibited, and if it goes to a museum in Saudi Arabia, and people travel there and go to see it, I mean, it would have in terms of that income value I was talking about, it would have, you know, a phenomenal one, you know, perhaps quite in excess of the $450 million that it brought at auction.

PETERSON-WITHORN: So I thought this was super fascinating that you could actually consider a work of art as something that could not only hold value and appreciate in value, but could also be a business, generating income for its owner over time.

TINDERA: So keeping all of those things in mind and knowing what he does about the Codex today. Robert Simon told us that he thought it would not sell for less than $150 million.

So it’s difficult to get much better than someone who has actually appraised an item. But we ended up contacting others who we thought might know the work well, too. We should note here that we did reach out to Christie’s, as well as Bill Gates to ask if they had any comments on the value of the Codex today. And if Gates himself had the Codex appraised since he bought it. But Christie’s declined to comment, and a spokesperson for Gates never responded to our questions.

So, we reached out to Martin Kemp, who is another da Vinci scholar, and an Oxford University emeritus professor. He told us via email that his guess would be, “over $100 million.” We also spoke with Stephen Massey, who we heard at the beginning of this episode. He was the auctioneer at the 1994 Christie’s sale. He said that he would guess that if the Codex were to go up for auction again, the auction estimate for the item might be $150 million. Everyone spoke with the caveat that we could never really know what the Codex is worth unless it actually goes up for auction.

PETERSON-WITHORN: In the end, we decided to take the average of all the recommendations we got from our expert sources. Everyone agreed, like Robert Simon said, that were it to go up for auction today. It would not draw more than the “Salvator Mundi,” which sold for $450 million. But no one thought it was still worth the $30.8 million Gates paid for it.

TINDERA: That average of every expert opinion worked out to about $130 million. And that’s the number we’re using to value it. This means the Codex is certainly one of the world’s most valuable pieces of art. But, it makes up only about 0.1% of Gates’ $134 billion fortune, which we estimated for the Forbes 400 this year. According to a CNBC report, the median net worth of someone who is 66 years old, which is Gates’ age is about $266,000. So Gates buying Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook is the equivalent of a typical 66-year-old splurging on—a new iPad.

Billionaires just live in a different world.

PETERSON-WITHORN: Thanks for listening to Priceless. This episode was reported by Michela Tindera, produced by Michela Tindera and Jonathan Palmer, with additional research by Sue Radlauer.

Additional audio credits: AP, CBS, GatesNotes-The Blog of Bill Gates.


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