Amy Cappellazzo: ‘I feel like I’ve been in the crypto business for 20 years’

Auction house executives can be a bit like investment bankers – indistinguishable, perfectly suited alpha males who mingle between nondescript job descriptions. Sometimes, however, you get a rainmaker and so it is with Amy Cappellazzo, the outgoing president of Sotheby’s Fine Arts division, whose competitive charisma – served with a big smile and persuasive patter – is unforgettable. .

She’s in great shape when we speak, having presided over a marathon evening of Impressionist to Contemporary art auctions in New York City that made a total of touching $ 600 million. The live-broadcast auction was the first in more than a year to allow some customers to return to the auction room. Cappellazzo, with his arm typically high in the air, had placed bids on works by Clyfford Still, Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Colescott. “It was exciting, even in a limited capacity, to have people back. There were even times, during the previews of the sale, when things felt normal again, ”she says.

Normal is not part of his ambition, however. Cappellazzo has been breaking the mold since she started auctioning at Christie’s New York in 2001. Born to Italian parents, she grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, where her father ran a small construction company. She recalls visits to the city’s famous Albright-Knox Art Gallery and occasional visits to the theater, but says the culture at home was “more about food and wine.” At Christie’s, she said, “I come from a different background than most of my colleagues. I did not have parents who collected works of art, I did not know the world of auctions.

Even so, she was well trained for the job. She had studied fine arts and art history at New York University and had previously worked in the art world in Miami, advising collectors including Don and Mera Rubell and helping launch the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. Also in her arsenal is a master’s degree in urban design from the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, which she says gave her an instinct for numbers.

“I didn’t have any special training in math, but I could see art as an investment. I found that I could value art or a collection and do a quick five to ten year growth chart in my head. “Is she always right in this complex value system?” Well, I’ve made it this far, “she said.

She serves him with outspoken confidence and financial jargon seldom used in the distinguished art world, or perhaps elsewhere. When we speak, she speaks with conviction of “turns” instead of “income” and of reading art “like a stock of momentum”. I remember his star turn in Nathaniel Kahn’s art market movie The price of everything where she dropped the word “hundo” to describe a hundred million dollars. He adheres.

It’s a way of speaking that has acted as a magnet for investment-conscious millionaires and billionaires, whose rise in wealth has coincided with the rise of Cappellazzo. A client over the years has been Dan Loeb, the activist hedge fund manager who started shaking Sotheby’s in 2013, earned a seat on the board of directors and helped bring Cappellazzo into the auction house at auction in 2016. Those ruffled feathers at the time – Sotheby’s bought out Cappellazzo and his colleagues from Art Agency Partners for a total of $ 85 million, just after a string of layoffs. But the deal had the desired effect of boosting his contemporary art business and arguably helped attract a new private owner in Patrick Drahi, who bought the auction house in 2019 for $ 3.7 billion. dollars.

“Amy doesn’t willingly suffer fools,” says Francis Outred, who worked with Cappellazzo at Christie’s and now runs her own eponymous art agency. “She’s a bit of a pot character. People love her or hate her, ”adds Outred, placing himself firmly in the first camp.

Cappellazzo participated in obtaining and selling “ Untitled ” by Jean-Michel Basquiat ($ 110 million) © La succession de Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP / Artists’ Rights Society / Sotheby’s

The deal with Sotheby’s immediately propelled Cappellazzo into the ranks of millionaires, which she does not hesitate. “I have been very, very successful at Sotheby’s and I appreciate it. It has always been important for me to try to give more than what I took, ”she says. She took her transfer seriously, especially to Brooke Lampley and Mari-Claudia Jiménez who, like her, are working parents. “I explained to them that when it comes to management, it’s a bit like being a parent. When all is well, then it’s a good day – excellent, actually. “

Despite such a prospect, I have the feeling that she throws herself fully into everything she does. At the start of her stay at Christie’s, she remembers privately selling a work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It was like getting something for God,” she says. The passion spills over into his personal life. She remembers moving to Miami “for love, not work” and quickly learning Spanish “because I had a Cuban girlfriend at the time”.

Most recently, she helped Sotheby’s overcome the extreme challenges the industry has faced since the Covid-19 pandemic. “She really pushed digital forward, when everyone seemed to be sleeping elsewhere,” says Outred.

As Cappellazzo prepares to leave the company at the end of June, she says, “My nagging fear is that people will come back to who we were.” This appears to be the driving force behind the next 53-year-old company, which looks like a 21st century art agency, able to adapt to any direction.

She’s vague on the details but says it’s partly out of necessity in such a fluid art market. “Whatever business you’re starting right now, it’s very important to be nimble so you can move on,” she says. She will always advise clients on buying and selling art, but does not rule out working directly with artists.

Technology and the growing market in Asia will support Cappellazzo’s projects. It is clear that the art world has changed, but not necessarily as we think. “We talk a lot about the rise of NFTs [non-fungible tokens], but I feel like I’ve been in the crypto business for about 20 years. Jeff Koons is an alternative currency, just like Andy Warhol and Mark Bradford, just read each market, ”she says.

The disruption now concerns more “the modes of distribution to which we are accustomed”, by which it means the traditional sales mechanisms of auctions, galleries and art fairs. With art, too, “it’s important to remember that trees won’t grow skyward,” she says. For Cappellazzo, however, there doesn’t seem to be such a limit.

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