Da Vinci notebook sells for over $5M


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Year
1980
Month Day
December 12

On December 12, 1980, American oil tycoon Armand Hammer pays $5,126,000 at auction for a notebook containing writings by the legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The manuscript, written around 1508, was one of some 30 similar books da Vinci produced during his lifetime on a variety of subjects. It contained 72 loose pages featuring some 300 notes and detailed drawings, all relating to the common theme of water and how it moved. Experts have said that da Vinci drew on it to paint the background of his masterwork, the Mona Lisa. The text, written in brown ink and chalk, read from right to left, an example of da Vinci’s favored mirror-writing technique. The painter Giuseppi Ghezzi discovered the notebook in 1690 in a chest of papers belonging to Guglielmo della Porto, a 16th-century Milanese sculptor who had studied Leonardo’s work. In 1717, Thomas Coke, the first earl of Leicester, bought the manuscript and installed it among his impressive collection of art at his family estate in England.

More than two centuries later, the notebook–by now known as the Leicester Codex–showed up on the auction block at Christie’s in London when the current Lord Coke was forced to sell it to cover inheritance taxes on the estate and art collection. In the days before the sale, art experts and the press speculated that the notebook would go for $7 to $20 million. In fact, the bidding started at $1.4 million and lasted less than two minutes, as Hammer and at least two or three other bidders competed to raise the price $100,000 at a time. The $5.12 million price tag was the highest ever paid for a manuscript at that time; a copy of the legendary Gutenberg Bible had gone for only $2 million in 1978. “I’m very happy with the price. I expected to pay more,” Hammer said later. “There is no work of art in the world I wanted more than this.” Lord Coke, on the other hand, was only “reasonably happy” with the sale; he claimed the proceeds would not be sufficient to cover the taxes he owed.

Hammer, the president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, renamed his prize the Hammer Codex and added it to his valuable collection of art. When Hammer died in 1990, he left the notebook and other works to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Several years later, the museum offered the manuscript for sale, claiming it was forced to take this action to cover legal costs incurred when the niece and sole heir of Hammer’s late wife, Frances, sued the estate claiming Hammer had cheated Frances out of her rightful share of his fortune. On November 11, 1994, the Hammer Codex was sold to an anonymous bidder–soon identified as Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft–at a New York auction for a new record high price of $30.8 million. Gates restored the title of Leicester Codex and has since loaned the manuscript to a number of museums for public display.

READ MORE: How Leonardo da Vinci’s Surprising Family Roots May Have Influenced His Work

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Millions stolen from JFK Airport in infamous ‘Lufthansa heist’


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Year
1978
Month Day
December 11

On December 11, 1978 half a dozen masked robbers raided the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK Airport in New York, making off with more than $5 million in cash ($21 million in today’s dollars) and almost $1 million in jewelry. To this day, the Lufthansa heist, as it is known, is considered one of the greatest in U.S. history.

The plan was dreamed up by Peter Gruenewald, a Lufthansa cargo worker at JFK Airport. Gruenewald knew that Lufthansa regularly flew large amounts of unmarked cash from Europe—the U.S. currency exchanged overseas by American tourists and servicemen—to JFK. Typically, this money would immediately be transferred to American banks via Brink’s trucks. However, delays sometimes caused the cash delivery to arrive after the last of the trucks had left for the day, which meant it was stored at the airport until the next business day—and vulnerable to theft.

Gruenewald took his plan to fellow cargo worker and friend Louis Werner, in the hopes of putting it in motion. Unfortunately for Gruenewald, Werner saw the robbery as an opportunity to get out from under a mountain of personal gambling debt and double-crossed his friend. He took Gruenewald’s plan to a big-time bookmaker in the area, Martin Krugman, who took the idea to his buddy, infamous mobster-turned-movie-consultant Henry Hill.

As depicted in the famous movie Goodfellas, Hill was part of a crew of gangsters run by James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. After years of earning money through nefarious deeds, Jimmy’s crew had become closely associated with the Lucchese crime family, and had amassed a solid reputation in the seedy world of organized crime. Burke and Hill took over the planning for the robbery. Jimmy’s crew was very familiar with JFK. Whenever they needed easy cash, the airport was an easy mark. The crew regularly hijacked trucks from JFK, often taking two or three trucks per week from there for quick money. Whether they were filled with televisions, clothes or food, they knew how to move merchandise to make extra cash.

Burke and Hill assembled a team for the robbery and waited for the word from his inside man, Werner. At about 3:00 A.M. on December 11, a black van loaded with the masked men pulled up to Lufthansa’s storage area. The men entered the building while the getaway van was brought to the back. They burst in, wielding guns, rounding up the night-shift employees and handcuffing them in the break room. The gunmen forced a supervisor to open the 10-by-20 foot vault to avoid setting off alarms. The cash and jewels were loaded into the van, and the crew inconspicuously drove away.

The entire heist took little more than an hour.

Unfortunately, they didn’t exactly get away free and clear. Rather than take the van to get crushed in a mob-controlled junk yard the night of the robbery, getaway driver Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards got drunk and left it parked illegally on the street in Brooklyn, where it was found with his fingerprints and footprint in the interior. Burke decided to cut the ties between Edwards and his crew, and the driver became the first suspect in the crime to be murdered. As Burke got more and more paranoid—and greedy for a larger share of the copious amounts of cash taken in the heist—the dominos began to fall fairly quickly. Krugman was the next to go, disappearing on January 6, 1979. By the summer of that year, eight men associated with the robbery were dead or missing.

Unable to connect anything to Jimmy and Henry’s crew, and with mobster bodies piling up, the FBI turned its attention to the inside man—Louis Werner. With help from testimony from Gruenewald, Werner was convicted for his role in the heist, but refused to cooperate or give up his co-conspirators. It seemed the Bureau would never solve the case, or bring to justice those involved.

“These ‘goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted,” said George Venizelos, FBI assistant director-in-charge, in the New York field office in a comment to Reuters.

The biggest break in the investigation finally came in the spring of 1980, when Hill was arrested on six drug-related counts. It wasn’t long before he had “flipped,” convinced by the FBI to testify against not only Burke, but Lucchese family underboss Paul Vario as well. Hill’s testimony led to Burke’s conviction on two separate counts—a basketball points-shaving scheme and an unrelated murder—and “Jimmy the Gent” died in prison in 1996. Vario was convicted of racketeering and died in prison in 1988.

Only a portion of the stolen money was ever recovered.

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Florida teen Trayvon Martin is shot and killed


On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an African American teen walking home from a trip to a convenience store, is fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer patrolling the townhouse community of the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman later claimed to have shot the unarmed 17-year-old out of self-defense during a physical altercation. After police initially opted not to arrest Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, the case sparked protests and ignited national debates about racial profiling and self-defense laws. Zimmerman later was charged with second-degree murder; following a high-profile trial that riveted America, he was acquitted of the charges against him.

On February 26, Martin, a Miami high school student, was in Sanford visiting his father. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, the teen was on his way back to the home of his father’s fiancée, after buying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of juice, when he was spotted by Zimmerman, a 28-year-old insurance-fraud investigator who was captain of the neighborhood patrol at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, which recently had experienced a series of break-ins and burglaries. Zimmerman called the non-emergency line of the Sanford police to report that Martin looked suspicious then ignored a police dispatcher’s advice not to follow the young man. Moments later, gunfire rang out. When officers arrived, Martin was dead at the scene. Zimmerman, who had a bloody nose and cuts on the back of his head, was questioned then released. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, and police chose not to arrest Zimmerman, who claimed to have acted in self-defense.

After Martin’s parents raised concerns about the police investigation into the death of their son, who had no criminal record, the case gained national attention. Protest rallies were held in cities nationwide, including New York City, where on March 21 hundreds of people gathered for the Million Hoodie March and demanded justice for Martin, who many believed Zimmerman had profiled as suspicious and threatening simply because the teen was black. Two days later, President Barack Obama said of the shooting: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” In addition to raising a national debate about race relations, the shooting drew attention to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to use lethal force if they fear for their safety and does not require them to retreat from a dangerous situation, even when it’s possible to do so.

On April 11, 2012, following weeks of demonstrations, a special prosecutor appointed by Florida’s governor charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and the case went to trial in June 2013. In court, the prosecution portrayed Zimmerman as a wannabe cop who had profiled Martin as a criminal, chased him down and fought him. Prosecutors also tried to poke holes in Zimmerman’s self-defense claim by pointing to inconsistencies in his statements to the police. Defense attorneys for Zimmerman, who did not take the stand, contended he only shot Martin after the teen attacked him. On July 13, after deliberating for 16 hours over two days, a jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty.

In November 2013, the city of Sanford announced new rules forbidding volunteers in its neighborhood watch program from carrying guns and pursuing suspects.

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Dalai Lama begins exile

Year
1959
Month Day
March 31

The Dalai Lama, fleeing the Chinese suppression of a national uprising in Tibet, crosses the border into India, where he is granted political asylum.

Born in Taktser, China, as Tensin Gyatso, he was designated the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940, a position that eventually made him the religious and political leader of Tibet. At the beginning of the 20th century, Tibet increasingly came under Chinese control, and in 1950 communist China invaded the country. One year later, a Tibetan-Chinese agreement was signed in which the nation became a “national autonomous region” of China, supposedly under the traditional rule of the Dalai Lama but actually under the control of a Chinese communist commission. The highly religious people of Tibet, who practice a unique form of Buddhism, suffered under communist China’s anti-religious legislation.

After years of scattered protests, a full-scale revolt broke out in March 1959, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee as the uprising was crushed by Chinese troops. On March 31, 1959, he began a permanent exile in India, settling at Dharamsala in Punjab, where he established a democratically based shadow Tibetan government. Back in Tibet, the Chinese adopted brutal repressive measures against the Tibetans, provoking charges from the Dalai Lama of genocide. With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Chinese suppression of Tibetan Buddhism escalated, and practice of the religion was banned and thousands of monasteries were destroyed.

Although the ban was lifted in 1976, protests in Tibet continued, and the exiled Dalai Lama won widespread international support for the Tibetan independence movement. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end the Chinese domination of Tibet.

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Puccini’s La bohème premieres in Turin, Italy


Year
1896
Month Day
February 01

By the time the first of his three career-defining operas had its premiere, Giacomo Puccini was no longer living a life of impoverished artistic struggle. His previous opera, Manon Gascaut, had made his name in the world of Italian opera, and, more important, it had earned him a significant advance on his next work. With his debts repaid and a country villa acquired, Puccini was no longer a starving artist, but rather an up-and-coming star embraced by the artistic establishment. It was, perhaps, the perfect vantage point from which to create a work that so famously romanticizes the passionate struggles of the artistic class: La Bohème, which was performed for the very first time on February 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.

The libretto of La Bohème was based on the immensely popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, Henri Murger’s 1845 collection of stories depicting the lives and loves of a group of young Parisian “Bohemians”—a label that Murger’s work helped popularize. (The label refers to the supposed geographic origins of the Gypsies, whose itinerant, out-of-the-mainstream ways seemed an apt comparison to the alternative lifestyles being led by the growing class of artist-types living in Europe’s urban centers.) From Murger’s stories, Puccini drew his cast of characters: Colline, the philosopher; Rodolfo, the poet; Marcello, the painter; Schaunard, the musician; and Marcello and Rodolfo’s respective love interests, the singer Musetta and the doomed seamstress Mimì.

In choosing to write La Bohème, Puccini was choosing to involve himself in his own real-life drama. Puccini’s friend, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, was working on an opera of his own, also based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème and also called La Bohème. Puccini’s pursuit of the project cost him his friendship with Leoncavallo, who is nevertheless famous for his 1892 opera Pagliacci, but whose own La Bohème, completed one year after Puccini’s, is now almost never performed. Puccini’s La Bohème, on the other hand, is second on the list of the world’s most-performed operas, behind only his own Madama Butterfly, the third of his acknowledged masterworks (Tosca being the second). Even those who are not opera fans may be more familiar with La Bohème than they realize; Puccini’s opera acted as inspiration and source material for the late Jonathan Larson in creating the Broadway smash Rent.

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Fleetwood Mac reunites to play “Don’t Stop” at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball


Year
1993
Month Day
January 19

On January 19, 1993, the band Fleetwood Mac reunites to perform at the recently elected U.S. President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural gala.

Fleetwood Mac had faced much intra-band squabbling since their 1970s heyday, why they released one of the biggest albums of all time—Rumours—and a string of decade-defining hits like “Landslide,” “Rhiannon,” “Say You Love Me” and “Go Your Own Way.” And then, of course, there was “Don’t Stop” (as in “thinking about tomorrow”), which was candidate Bill Clinton’s unofficial theme song during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Along with Truman’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” and Ross Perot’s “Crazy,” Clinton’s “Don’t Stop” can certainly be placed within the catchy-and-memorable subset of Presidential campaign songs—in contrast to, say, “Buckle Down with Nixon,”  “Get on a Raft with Taft” and “Huzzah for Madison.” Clinton’s theme song may have lacked specificity regarding his political agenda, but it had a good beat, a warm vibe and a chorus that audiences could sing along to. Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 recording of “Don’t Stop” played in a seemingly endless loop from the night of Clinton’s nomination at the 1992 Democratic National Convention that previous summer through to election night in November, so that by the time January rolled around, the mere playing of the record would have seemed a disappointing way to end the evening of the inaugural ball.

And so the Clinton transition team sprang into action and accomplished a political feat that certainly seemed to bode well for the new president’s ambitious plans to bring peace and stability to Haiti and overhaul the nation’s health-care system. It had been more than five years since Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks had shared a stage, but in a true coup of diplomacy, the Clinton team convinced the entire Rumours-era lineup of Fleetwood Mac to reunite for a truly historic live performance of “Don’t Stop” on this day in 1993.

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Black music gets whitewashed, as Georgia Gibbs hits the pop charts with “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)”

Year
1955
Month Day
March 26

For its time, the mid-1950s, the lyrical phrase “You got to roll with me, Henry” was considered risqué just as the very label “rock and roll” was understood to have a sexual connotation. The line comes from an Etta James record originally called “Roll With Me Henry” and later renamed “The Wallflower.” Already a smash hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart, it went on to become a pop hit in the spring of 1955, but not for Etta James. Re-recorded with “toned-down” lyrics by the white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” entered the pop charts on March 26, 1955, setting off a dubious trend known as “whitewashing.”

In addition to replacing “Roll” with “Dance,” the lyrics of the Georgia Gibbs version omitted lines like “If you want romancin/You better learn some dancin,’” but its most important change was more subtle. Even in an era when radio audiences rarely saw the faces of the singers they listened to, the rhythmic and vocal style of the Georgia Gibbs record made it as obviously white as the Etta James record was black. And while many Americans might have preferred the Etta James version to the Georgia Gibbs cover had they heard the two in succession, they would rarely have the opportunity to do so. Pop radio was almost exclusively white radio in 1955 America, and middle-of-the-road artists like Nat “King” Cole and the Ink Spots were rare exceptions to this rule.

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U.S.-Russia detente ends


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Year
1980
Month Day
January 02

On January 2, 1980, in a strong reaction to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter asks the Senate to postpone action on the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty and recalls the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. These actions sent a message that the age of detente and the friendlier diplomatic and economic relations that were established between the United States and Soviet Union during President Richard Nixon’s administration (1969-74) had ended.

Carter feared that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which an estimated 30,000 combat troops entered that nation and established a puppet government, would threaten the stability of strategic neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan and could lead to the USSR gaining control over much of the world’s oil supplies. The Soviet actions were labeled “a serious threat to peace” by the White House. Carter asked the Senate to shelve ratification talks on SALT II, the nuclear arms treaty that he and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had already signed, and the president called U.S. ambassador to Moscow Thomas J. Watson back to Washington for “consultation,” in an effort to let the Kremlin know that military intervention in Afghanistan was unacceptable.

When the Soviets refused to withdraw from Afghanistan, America halted certain key exports to the USSR, including grain and high technology, and boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow. The United States also began to covertly subsidize anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, the CIA secretly sent billions of dollars to Afghanistan to arm and train the mujahedeen rebel forces that were battling the Soviets. This tactic was successful in helping to drive out the Soviets, but it also gave rise to the oppressive Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist organization.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, who favored a more aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. Reagan dubbed the USSR the “evil empire” and believed it was America’s responsibility to save the world from Soviet repression. He dramatically increased U.S. defense spending and ramped up the nuclear arms race with the Soviets, whose faltering economy ultimately prevented them from keeping pace. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

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Soviet Union invades Afghanistan


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Year
1979
Month Day
December 24

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, under the pretext of upholding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty of 1978.

As midnight approached, the Soviets organized a massive military airlift into Kabul, involving an estimated 280 transport aircraft and three divisions of almost 8,500 men each. Within a few days, the Soviets had secured Kabul, deploying a special assault unit against Tajberg Palace. Elements of the Afghan army loyal to Hafizullah Amin put up a fierce, but brief resistance.

On December 27, Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was installed as Afghanistan’s new head of government. And Soviet ground forces entered Afghanistan from the north.

The Soviets, however, were met with fierce resistance when they ventured out of their strongholds into the countryside. Resistance fighters, called mujahidin, saw the Christian or atheist Soviets controlling Afghanistan as a defilement of Islam as well as of their traditional culture. Proclaiming a “jihad”(holy war), they gained the support of the Islamic world.

The mujahidin employed guerrilla tactics against the Soviets. They would attack or raid quickly, then disappear into the mountains, causing great destruction without pitched battles. The fighters used whatever weapons they could grab from the Soviets or were given by the United States.

The tide of the war turned with the 1987 introduction of U.S. shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. The Stingers allowed the mujahidin to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters on a regular basis.

New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out. Demoralized and with no victory in sight, Soviet forces started withdrawing in 1988. The last Soviet soldier crossed back across the border on February 15, 1989.

It was the first Soviet military expedition beyond the Eastern bloc since World War II and marked the end of a period of improving relations (known as détente) in the Cold War. Subsequently, the SALT II arms treaty was shelved and the U.S. began to re-arm.

Fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers were killed.

The long-term impact of the invasion and subsequent war was profound. First, the Soviets never recovered from the public relations and financial losses, which significantly contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. Secondly, the war created a breeding ground for terrorism and the rise of Osama bin Laden.

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Gusher signals start of U.S. oil industry


Year
1901
Month Day
January 10

On January 10, 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas, produces an enormous gusher of crude oil, coating the landscape for hundreds of feet and signaling the advent of the American oil industry. The geyser was discovered at a depth of over 1,000 feet, flowed at an initial rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day and took nine days to cap. Following the discovery, petroleum, which until that time had been used in the U.S. primarily as a lubricant and in kerosene for lamps, would become the main fuel source for new inventions such as cars and airplanes; coal-powered forms of transportation including ships and trains would also convert to the liquid fuel.

Crude oil, which became the world’s first trillion-dollar industry, is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds trapped in underground rock. The hydrocarbons were formed millions of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of the ground today.

In the early 1890s, Texas businessman and amateur geologist Patillo Higgins became convinced there was a large pool of oil under a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He and several partners established the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and made several unsuccessful drilling attempts before Higgins left the company. In 1899, Higgins leased a tract of land at Spindletop to mining engineer Anthony Lucas. The Lucas gusher blew on January 10, 1901, and ushered in the liquid fuel age. Unfortunately for Higgins, he’d lost his ownership stake by that point.

Beaumont became a “black gold” boomtown, its population tripling in three months. The town filled up with oil workers, investors, merchants and con men (leading some people to dub it “Swindletop”). Within a year, there were more than 285 actives wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area, including some that are major players today: Humble (now Exxon), the Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil).

Spindletop experienced a second boom starting in the mid-1920s when more oil was discovered at deeper depths. In the 1950s, Spindletop was mined for sulphur. Today, only a few oil wells still operate in the area.

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