Legal dispute forces sale of Leonardo

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The Independent Online
FOUR YEARS after Armand Hammer, the late oil tycoon, spent dollars 90m (pounds 60m) on a building for his dollars 450m art collection - dying only a fortnight before it opened - a serious legal dispute is forcing the museum to sell one of its founder's most prized possessions, writes Dalya Alberge.

It is to auction a Leonardo - the Renaissance master's notebook, the last in private hands - to cover the costs of a lawsuit being brought by the niece of Hammer's late wife, who is contesting ownership of the collection. According to Art Newspaper, she is seeking 'a percentage of the collection's aggregate appraised value'.

The Leonardo notebook dates from about 1507. Across its 18 leaves, Leonardo explored astronomy, geography, geology and hydraulics: it features more than 300 sketches and his famous right-to-left mirror handwriting, tackling ideas on flood control, steam power and the submarine.

It became known as the Codex Hammer when Hammer acquired it in 1980 for pounds 2.42m: before then, it was called the Codex Leicester, after the Earl of Leicester who bought it in 1717. It remained with the Earl's heirs until 1980. Although Paula Berry, associate director of the museum, said that the sale would be at Christie's, negotiations are still under way and the auction house was unable to comment yesterday.

This is not the first time Hammer's art collection has been the subject of a legal dispute: in 1987, there was an acrimonious case involving the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to whom, seven years earlier, he had promised to leave his pictures (the Leonardo and other works were on loan to them). Hammer withdrew his offer after arguing over the conditions of the bequest and gave his drawings to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Ms Berry believes the Leonardo sale will not leave a gaping hole: 'It's not the work most closely tied to the collection, which is primarily a late 19th and 20th century collection.' The collection boasts Van Gogh's Hospital at St Remy, a painting that Hammer described as worth more than the record- breaking Irises because 'that's just a flower and I got the whole garden'.