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August in December: Uribe Becomes Sotheby’s Ex-Expert of Impressionist/Modern Art (with video)

In yesterday’s post, I described my early meeting with the late Donald Marron as one of “several milestones (or millstones) in my career, when something I wrote that was intended as praise had unintended negative consequences.”

With the news published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding “20 to 30 senior executives” at Sotheby’s who were laid off “in the past month,” (which expanded on artnet‘s Dec. 4 report about “Top [Sotheby’s] Executives Leav[ing] Under New Owner Patrick Drahi“), I can now add another person to the unfortunate list of those for whom my favorable attention became the kiss of death:

August Uribe, being eyed appraisingly last month by Picasso’s “Portrait of Lola, the Artist’s Sister,” 1901
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I reported here, I spoke with August Uribe, then Sotheby’s head of the Impressionist/Modern Department and vice chairman, Fine Arts Division, at the press preview for this fall’s evening sales at Sotheby’s (with the firm’s new CEO, Charles Stewart, close by, talking with another journalist). I then wrote (with unfortunate prescience) that “Uribe’s tasty take on the new Sotheby’s could be flavored by inside knowledge, with a dash of wishful thinking [emphasis added].”

When I had asked Uribe what Sotheby’s new management had communicated to the specialists, he had cheerfully replied:

Basically, new management is extraordinarily happy to be on board and wants to maintain what I would call the status quo vis à vis the specialist departments and how we’re being staffed. So they’re very much in favor of keeping the specialist staffs as they are, in both decorative arts and the fine arts departments, and most likely augmenting them. There’s a deep commitment to expertise…

…or maybe not. A Sotheby’s veteran, Uribe had been with the firm since 1991 (interrupted by a three-year stint at Phillips). His disquisitions on Sotheby’s offerings were always knowledgeable, delivered with fluent lucidity. His Linked In profile puts his current employment as: “Garden Leave.” At first, I thought that might be the name of a horticultural society, but Googling those words revealed this:

“Garden Leave” is a fairly common British term. According to Wikipedia, “Garden Leave” describes the practice whereby an employee who is leaving a job (having resigned or otherwise had his or her employment terminated) is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.

When contacted by me, Sotheby’s refused to confirm or deny the details in The Art Newspaper about staff departures. But a staffer in the press office did confirm to me that Uribe was no longer there, as seemed evident when I searched for “Uribe” on the auction firm’s Our Team webpage and got this:

Let’s press rewind and send Uribe back to Sotheby’s via my CultureGrrl Video. We’ll hear a brief excerpt from his remarks at the Nov. 1 press preview on two Signacs that were offered by Sotheby’s in its Nov. 12 evening Impressionist/Modern sale—“La Corne d’Or (Constantinopole” 1907, and “Lac Léman (Saint Gingolphe),” 1903-4:

It would seem that The Curse of CultureGrrl, which falls upon those whom I praise, may have a corollary: the good fortune that accrues to those whom I criticize. Amy Cappellazzo, a recent object of my unfavorable attention, appears to have risen in favor with the powers that (now) be, having reportedly been tapped to head Sotheby’s expanded Fine Arts Department, which (according to the Art Newspaper article), will encompass not only Impressionist, modern and contemporary art, but also old masters, 19th-century paintings and drawings, and prints and photographs.

Amy Cappellazzo at Sotheby’s
2016 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Cappellazzo’s area of expertise is contemporary art, but judging from her performance (which I characterized as a “caricature of crassness”) in Nathaniel Kahn‘s artworld documentary, “The Price of Everything,” one of her strengths is flattering the vanity of important collectors who are prospective purchasers and/or consigners.

Just as I’ve given up on my ability to predict who will win government elections, I’ve given up predicting who will rise and fall in the auction-house pecking order. But the staff cuts made by Tad Smith, Sotheby’s previous CEO, coupled with the reported cuts (not officially announced) by new CEO Patrick Drahi, may turn a lean organization into an emaciated one.

“A deep commitment to expertise” (in Uribe’s now ironically resonant words, quoted above) is what distinguishes a trusted art purveyor from a merchandise-mover. We can only hope that the new CEO, Charles Stewart, who lacks an artworld background, understands that.

Instead of exfoliating experts, maybe Sotheby’s should work on upgrading its tech staff. Below is a head-scratcher that I (and many others) received in our email inboxes this morning:

Here’s the beginning of the earlier email, titled, “test,” that the above message referred to:

UPDATE TICKBOXES: false  =  UPDATE PC: false – Behavioral Values =  UPDATE CURL TIMESTAMP: false
PC LOGIC SETUP: Case C === Case C
TICKED TODAY: Asian ArtContemporaryImpressionist and Modern ArtLatin AmericaOMP

“False – Behavioral Values” = Hmmm

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