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For love and money: collector Armand J. Castellani on his passion for art.

As an Italian immigrant boy without a high-school education, Armand J. Castellani decided he would learn enough in the Army to become a captain. He did; and nearly half a century later, after a career that's included building a successful chain of supermarkets in New York, he still looks back at earning that rank as one of his greatest accomplishments. In the Army, he learned how to study and master a new system, and when he grew interested in art at nearly 60, that same approach proved successful again. Castellani headed to the Albright-Knox Gallery in his adopted hometown of Buffalo and soaked up every ounce of knowledge he could from its staff and collection.

Now, more than 15 years later and retired in Sarasota, Castellani has proved himself a wily and passionate collector. A $3.5 million Castellani Art Museum opened at Niagara University in 1990, filled with his acquisitions and financed, in part, by the judicious selling of just the right piece at just the right moment. He prefers to talk about the world of art rather than his Tops Markets, Inc. chain, which he built from one family store in Niagara Falls to some 140 supermarkets and convenience stores. He remains as chairman of the board emeritus of the company, a billion-dollar enterprise headed by one of his 11 children. He and his wife Eleanor recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. But besides that extensive family, Castellani's preoccupations today are the wholesale nursery business in eastern Sarasota County that he began when he moved here in 1987 and art.

"Collecting isn't something I have to do," says the unassuming Castellani in the modest office of his nursery business. "It's something I like to do. That's the difference between work and play."

If it's play for Castellani to deal in art, it's also clear that the dealmaker in him loves the challenge. While he can talk knowledgeably about an artist's brushstroke or use of color, he admits that the greatest thrill for him "is to get it at the price you want to pay."

Castellani takes a pragmatic approach to collecting and says there are no pieces he's sentimentally committed to keeping forever. "I don't believe in keeping major masterpieces in your home," he says. "But I keep an eye on young, up-and-coming artists and hang their work at home. One I started collecting 10 years ago is Michael Kessler, who just won the American equivalent of the Prix de Rome. He's too sophisticated for the market here right now, but I'm very confident he's going to be top-notch."

Castellani keeps abreast of the local art market through his connection with downtown's Mira Mar Gallery, run by Allyn Gallup. He helped Gallup finance the gallery and places some works there. He's also an avid reader of catalogs from Sotheby's and other art houses, but he usually eschews dealers when buying art, often going direct to the artist himself. What does he look for when buying?

"The key word is creativity," he answers. "If an artist doesn't create something, he's not a fine artist; artists shouldn't just imitate. I like just about every phase of fine art. The best advice I ever got in the art world was from Jim Wood, who used to be the chief curator at the Albright-Knox. I asked him what books to read, and he said, 'Forget the books. Go out to fine art galleries and develop a feel.' I really didn't know what the heck he meant, but I did what he said because he said it and I like looking at fine art. I developed a feel, and now I'm rated pretty good among the art community. I've come a long way."

But no matter how far he's come, he says, a true collector is never finished and never satisfied.

"When you're involved in fine art, you never have enough money. I don't care if you're a Mellon or a Rockefeller, you don't have enough, simply because first you want the million-dollar painting, now you want the 10-million-dollar painting. One of the first pieces I bought was a Cy Twombly. I saw his scribblings and I thought anybody who could get $20,000 or $40,000 for a scribbling like that's got to be a genius, I want to buy that piece. I bought it for $22,000 and donated it to the Albright-Knox, because they didn't have a Twombly. I didn't really know what I was doing. About a year ago I got a catalog for Sotheby's and it had a Twombly in it much like the one I bought, only bigger. It sold for $5 1/2 million. Just incredible. If you asked me why, I couldn't tell you."

Ever the hardheaded businessman, Castellani takes a realistic approach to the inflated art market of the '80s and its consequent fall in the '90s. "I think it's going to come down a little more, then bounce up," he says. And he contends he was never seduced by the market's most fantastic heights. "I never bid on those overpriced pieces; I really have a feel for art values." Sometimes he's had a bit of luck as well. Take his purchase of works by red-hot artist Susan Rothenberg. He learned about her about 15 years ago because her father was involved with him in business, and he started buying her prints for $500 each. Castellani later ended up selling one of the pieces for $30,000; but as he admits, "Who the heck can figure these things ahead? Art is like real estate. It's worth what somebody will pay for it. If someone's willing to pay $85 million for a Van Gogh, it's worth $85 million."

"It's a lot of fun," Castellani admits of his pursuit of art. "I'm an old wheeler-dealer in the food business, you know, and I love to wheel and deal. What's nice about the art business is, you don't have to have it. The galleries will hate me for saying this, but the buyer's in the driver's seat all the time. When you have to have something, the seller's in the driver's seat."

At 75, Castellani is committed to continuing to explore the world he's discovered in his later years. "Nobody knows all about art," he says. "It's like saying you know all about the universe. My interest is in what we do tomorrow. The rest is history."
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Author:Kipling, Kay
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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