Violy McCausland-Seve Turns Her M&A Skills to Collecting Art
The Violy CEO is an effective deal maker when it comes to collecting abstract modern art.
Despite her petite five-foot-four frame, Violy McCausland-Seve seems larger than life. The principal and CEO of Violy & Co., a New York–based firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions in Latin America, has brokered transactions worth more than $70 billion in her career.
The 55-year-old banker is an equally effective deal maker when it comes to her other passion: collecting abstract modern art, primarily Latin American.
“Violy is a visionary, she loves a challenge, and she is very focused,” says her longtime friend Tony Bechara, an artist and chairman of New York’s El Museo del Barrio. “The same traits that make a great financial analyst make a great collector.”
A Colombian native, McCausland-Seve got a taste for art at an early age. Her father, an architect, collected modern art. She began buying at age 24. Today, McCausland-Seve and her husband of ten years, Brazilian art dealer Frederico Seve, have amassed about 1,000 artworks — including paintings, drawings, sculptures, photos, tapestries, pottery, mosaics, furniture — and one living room ceiling. Their Latin American collection is a quarter of the size of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s. McCausland-Seve won’t disclose its value.
Some pieces are stunning. A 7-by-10-foot painting by Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta hangs at one end of the enormous living room of the couple’s Upper West Side apartment, which overlooks the American Museum of Natural History. Spanish artist Ramon Canet painted a nongeometric abstract mural in soft blues, whites and golds across the entire living room ceiling.
McCausland-Seve doesn’t work with a curator, relying instead on the advice of her husband and their artist friends — and her instincts. “I buy things that I love,” she says. Her husband introduced her to Cuban-born abstract artist Carmen Herrera, now 95, who has painted innovative geometric abstractions all her life but had sold only a half-dozen paintings. She hadn’t done an exhibit in decades when Seve included her in a three-woman show in 2005.
Before the opening of that show, McCausland-Seve bought a whimsical diamond-shaped composition with three skinny, bright-green triangles balancing on their points on a white background, and has picked up six more Herrera pieces since. Thanks to the couple’s interest, Herrera’s work is now in the collections at MoMA and the Tate Modern in London.
McCausland-Seve is unstoppable at auctions, says her husband. Before the two were introduced by mutual artist friends, Seve noticed his future wife at a Christie’s auction after she outbid him on three lots of drawings by Brazilian artist Mira Schendel. McCausland-Seve insists she always has a price ceiling when she bids, though not necessarily a size limit. She once bought a dining table and eight chairs by George Nakashima, the Japanese-American master craftsman, but the set was so large she ended up storing it for a year before telling her husband. “Her art taste can be very eclectic,” Bechara notes.
The first piece to greet visitors to the couple’s apartment is a five-part plaster sculpture of a horse, a man with a child, a dachshund and a patch of spiky grass that could be the Argentinean pampas. It’s by a Japanese artist, Masaki Takizawa. McCausland-Seve picked it up at a gallery in Queens. Also on display is a group of Crayola crayons with skinny figures of people and animals carved out of the tops, which McCausland-Seve recently bought from a gallery in Seattle. “It’s amazing how she can put things together in her home and still make them individual on their own,” avows Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA.
About 25 percent of the art in the couple’s apartment stays put. McCausland-Seve circulates the rest among storage, her office, various shows and the homes of her three grown children from a previous marriage. She sells pieces from time to time, but not often. Over the years, more by accident than by design, her collection has become her bank. “My husband says, ‘Violy, you should save.’ But my art is my asset base,” she explains. “I don’t buy stocks and bonds.”
She has, though, made the odd exception. In the 1990s she bought 100,000 shares of Apple Computer at $8 a share. As with everything else, the decision was instinctive — though that time not her own. Her young daughter, then in fourth grade, told her Apple computers were big. The investment paid off handsomely — she sold the shares a few years later and used the proceeds to help her son start a business — but it didn’t excite her like buying art.