Sotheby's Global Contemporary Art Head Westphal Departs

  • Joins recent exodus of top dealmakers, specialists at firm
  • CEO Tad Smith is shaking up auctioneer to boost profitability

Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art worldwide, is leaving the company, the latest high-profile departure at the auction house.

“Cheyenne has been a valued colleague for 25 years who contributed greatly to Sotheby’s during her tenure, and we wish her well,” Sotheby’s said in a statement Thursday. She is staying until mid-April.

In a memo to the staff, Sotheby’s said Oliver Barker will become chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Alex Branczik will become the head of contemporary art in Europe.

Westphal’s exit is a blow to the company that has recently lost several top deal-makers and specialists in Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary departments. Sotheby’s largest shareholder, billionaire hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, has pushed the New York-based auction house since 2013 to become more profitable. The shakeup has intensified since November, when chief executive Tad Smith offered buyouts to Sotheby’s employees while spending heavily on new talent.

A recent spate of departures among top executives follows the acquisition by Sotheby’s of private firm Art Agency Partners for as much as $85 million in January. The company’s co-founders, Amy Cappellazzo and Allan Schwartzman, joined Sotheby’s senior management as co-chairmen of a new fine art division that comprises departments including Impressionist, modern and contemporary art. The heads of these departments now report to Cappellazzo and Schwartzman. Cappellazzo previously spent 13 years in high-ranking jobs at rival Christie’s.

“When Alfred Taubman bought Sotheby’s in 1983, he was very conscious that the main asset was staff,” said David Nash, co-owner of Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York who was Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art department worldwide for 15 years until 1996. “Everybody stayed.”

Sotheby’s fell 0.5 percent to $26.50 at 12:02 p.m. in New York trading. The stock is up 3.4 percent since Jan. 1.

Auction houses are in the final stretch of lining up consignments for their May auctions in New York, which are expected to be smaller than similar events a year ago and in November, according to dealers, art lenders and auction house executives.

Global art sales fell 7 percent last year to $63.8 billion, according to the annual report by the European Fine Art Foundation published in March. While U.S. art sales increased to a record $27.3 billion in 2015, the Chinese market declined by 23 percent to $11.8 billion, the lowest level since 2009, according to the report.

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