Sotheby's to Lose Two Dealmakers Amid Auction House Shakeup

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  • Contemporary art's Rotter, Impressionist's Norman to depart
  • A number of senior experts have exited since November

Two top dealmakers at Sotheby’s are leaving the auction house, the latest exodus of key employees amid a management shakeup.

Alex Rotter, the global co-head of the contemporary art department who has been with Sotheby’s since 2000, is leaving at the end of this month, the company said. David Norman, vice chairman of Sotheby’s Americas and co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, is leaving after 31 years, but will stay at least through the semi-annual auctions in May.

Sotheby’s largest shareholder, billionaire hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, has pushed the New York-based auction house since 2013 to become more profitable, well before the art market started to cool off amid roiling financial markets. The shakeup has intensified since November, when Tad Smith, the chief executive officer, offered buyouts to Sotheby’s employees while spending heavily on new talent.

Picasso, Giacometti

Sotheby’s shares, down 44 percent in the past year, fell to the lowest since 2009 earlier this month. The stock rose 3.6 percent on Thursday to close at $24.39.

“After a wonderful 16 years at Sotheby’s contemporary art department, starting as an intern and climbing up the ladder to become its worldwide co-head, I decided to resign from Sotheby’s and pursue other opportunities,” Rotter said in a telephone interview.

Norman oversaw the sale of Pablo Picasso’s “Gracon a la pipe," which fetched $104.2 million in 2004, the first work to break through $100 million threshold. In 2014, Norman took the winning bid from billionaire Steve Cohen on Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “Chariot,” which fetched $101 million. He’s been also advising collectors in Asia.

“Sotheby’s is a remarkable institution,” Norman said in a telephone interview. “This was the longest relationship of my life. It was a hard decision but I am incredibly excited about the opportunities that are out there in a very dynamic moment in the art industry.”

Rotter helped win the consignment of Jeff Koons’s massive hot pink “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)" sculpture, which fetched $23.6 million in 2007, then an auction record for a living artist. 

Experts Exit

Sotheby’s contemporary art department lost several experts in New York. Anthony Grant, vice chairman of the Americas and international senior specialist in contemporary art, left in January. Senior specialists Aileen Agopian and Scott Nussbaum took the buyout last year. Grant secured Sotheby’s top lot of 2015, a Cy Twombly painting that fetched $70.5 million.

Sotheby’s is also losing Melanie Clore, chairman in Europe and co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, who resigned earlier this month, after 35 years at the company.

The latest departures follow Sotheby’s acquisition of the 2-year-old private firm Art Agency Partners for as much as $85 million on Jan. 11 to boost sales. 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 Christie’s.

The exit of top experts “can have a substantial impact on the bottom line,” said Michael Plummer, a principal in advisory firm Artvest Partners in New York who had worked at Christie’s. “Expertise is one of the most important aspects an auction house needs to nurture. If they don’t, it can cause brain drain. When senior specialists leave to become dealers or join a competitor, they take away clients and business.”

In January, Sotheby’s reported a preliminary fourth-quarter loss and said it would scrap its quarterly dividend to buy back more shares instead. It’s scheduled to report full fourth-quarter and 2015 earnings on Friday.