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Da Vinci, Bill Gates and Codex Leicester: why it pays to invest in genius

Sold for $5.12m in 1980, and for $30.8m in 1994, Da Vinci's Codex Leicester is a truly great investment



In 1994, Bill Gates stepped beyond the realm of computers into the world of rare books. That year, the Microsoft founder and billionaire purchased a one-of-a-kind Leonardo Da Vinci notebook, the Codex Leicester. He bought it for $30.8m.

To this day, Codex Leicester remains the most expensive manuscript ever sold. And, thanks to the 'supply and demand' laws which underpin the collectibles markets, the value of a one-of-a-kind piece like Codex Leicester would be even greater if measured today.

The notebook's history on the markets speaks for itself. Particularly if we go back to today in history, December 12, 1980. On that day, American oil tycoon Armand Hammer, president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, bought Codex Leicester 14 years before Gates.

Bill Gates: weekend progammer

Book worm Bill Gates bought Codex Leicester for a World Record $30.8m in 1994 - it remains the world's most valuable manuscript


Hammer laid down a maximum bid of $5,126,000 for the book.

Codex Leicester was written around 1508, and is one of 30 or so similar books produced by Da Vinci across his lifetime. Within the Codex Leicester's 72 loose pages are around 300 notes and detailed drawings rendered in chalk and brown ink, alongside Leonardo's famed 'mirror writing'.

All of these sketches are based around a common theme: water and how it moved. Codex Leicester's historical importance is further bolstered by the fact that Da Vinci is thought to have used its contents as research to paint the background of his masterwork, the Mona Lisa.

In terms of provenance, Codex Leicester can be definitely traced back to 1690 when it was discovered by painter Giuseppi Ghezzi in a chest of papers. The chest belonged to Guglielmo della Porto, a 16th-century Milanese sculptor and student of Leonardo's work.

Subsequent owners included Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, England, who added the book to his significant collection of art. Over the next couple of centuries, the book would become known as Codex Leicester.

Its later auction appearance in 1980 was arranged by Christie's in London. At the time, press speculation placed Codex Leicester's value at $7m-20m. Bidding actually opened at $1.4m and, by all accounts, lasted less than two minutes.

Hammer's $5.12m final bid was the highest-ever paid for a manuscript at that time. It broke the World Record set by the Gutenberg Bible, sold for $2m in 1978.

Da Vinci Codex Leicester

Each year, Bill Gates exhibits his Codex Leicester in a different location
 - and has voiced plans to digitise the notebook


Hammer soon after renamed his manuscript the "Hammer Codex" and added it to his massive art collection. "I'm very happy with the price. I expected to pay more," he was later quoted as saying. "There is no work of art in the world I wanted more than this."

However, the then-current Lord Coke, who auctioned Codex Leicester to cover his inheritance taxes, was reportedly disappointed with the lower-than-anticipated final bid.

After Hammer's death in 1990, Da Vinci's notebook was left to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

The museum later auctioned the manuscript, it claimed, to cover legal costs. This was after the niece of Hammer's late wife, Frances, claimed she had been cheated out of her inheritance.

This resulted in a further sale on November 11, 1994. The anonymous winning buyer was later confirmed as Bill Gates, whose $30.8m bid means that the Codex Leicester had grown in value by 13.66% per annum since Hammer's purchase in 1980.

The Microsoft impresario has since loaned the manuscript to various institutions for public display, and has stated his desire to digitise the its contents.

In the meantime, the Codex Leicester's ever-rising value is testament to the proven bankability of the world's rarest books and manuscripts as tangible assets.



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Last updated: 12 December 2011