Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sotheby's Lockout: An American Story

Two headlines caught my attention on Artinfo:
  • Sotheby's Art Handlers Take to Picket Lines After Dramatic Weekend Lockout Inflames Negotiations

  • Sotheby's Claims Record First Half, Citing Growth of the Asian Market
On the surface, this juxtaposition would seem to tell just another story of the ever-increasing disparity between the rich and poor, the powerful and the less powerful. But I think it's actually more of a portrait of what's both wrong and right with America.

On one side is an international conglomerate raking in the dough:
Sotheby's, the only publicly traded auction house, announced its best first half in history this afternoon. The company has had a record total of $3.4 billion in consolidated sales for the six months ending June 30, which includes both auction proceeds and private sales. Net income increased $127.2 million and $129.7 million respectively for the three- and six-month periods ended June 30.

On the call this afternoon to discuss second quarter and first half earnings, Sotheby's president and CEO Bill Ruprecht attributed the great results to tremendous growth in private sales, increased demand from the Chinese market, and exceptional tallies at their recent London auctions. The London contemporary evening sale on June 29 brought in over $174 million in one evening. [emphasis mine]
On the other hand, the blue-collar workers at this international conglomerate who haven't had a contract for over a month (but had been trying to negotiate a new one and had kept working anyway), were told last weekend not to bother coming to work until they can agree to the conglomerate's current terms. In other words, the conglomerate was done negotiating:

Sotheby's will bring in temporary replacement workers for the duration of the lockout, during which union employees will be unable to work or collect paychecks. "They think it's going to put pressure on us to accept the proposal," Jason Ide, president of Teamsters Local 814 and a former art handler himself, told ARTINFO. But the Teamsters have no plans to accept the agreement. According to Ide, the list of concessions is similar to that which Sotheby's has been advocating for the duration of negotiations, including the long-term reduction of senior union workers and a shortened workweek.

Diana Phillips, a spokesperson for Sotheby's, said the auction house had been negotiating "in good faith" and called the terms of the contract "attractive." "This was not an outcome Sotheby's wanted," she told ARTINFO via e-mail. She said that other unions representing employees of Sotheby's had agreed to the same terms in previous contract negotiations.

I don't have any information about the stickler points in the negotiations, but Sotheby's is clearly concerned with keeping its staffing costs under control:
While there was an increase in revenues over the first half of 2010, there was also a rise in expenses for the company. A major uptick in these expenses came from accrued hiring costs and increased compensation, according to Ruprecht. There has been a surge of salary outlays, especially in Asia where the company is experiencing large amounts of growth.
Now one could snark that record sales apparently aren't enough to keep up with the costs of their world domination goals. But with the unemployment numbers what they are, and the fact that this business is actually creating jobs, they deserve some credit.

And, yet,
this being America, we all love a good underdog story. And a good American underdog story it is that Julia Halperin reports via interviews with the art handlers of Sotheby's, a fabulous intermix of high culture and humble beginnings, of pride and unexpected expertise. Here's the set up:

Throughout negotiations, Ide has argued that union workers offer a level of expertise and experience unmatched by non-union workers. ARTINFO stopped by Sotheby's to find out a bit more about the experience and expertise of the art handlers on the picket line, many of whom say they have spent more time around multimillion-dollar artwork than most auction specialists.

The ranks of the protesters run the gamut, from part-time artists to a third-generation art handler. Five of the union members took a break from the picket line to chat with ARTINFO about their place in the art world, and their favorite — and most harrying — tales from the job.

You can read all the interviews; but here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Julian Tysch, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 6 years union member

How would you characterize the art handler's place in the art world?
Essential. Our hands are literally responsible for maintaining some of the most important works of art in the world.

What's the most memorable story you have from your career as an art handler?
I'm humbled to work with self-trained, self-taught art experts. I've seen a specialist in 19th-century painting ask our handler whether he thought the paining was a real Bouguereau or not. Plus, a lot of the people who work here are artists themselves.

What is your favorite artwork you've ever handled?
Probably John Chamberlains. They're huge, massive, and heavy. Most people couldn't even tell when a Chamberlain is damaged because they look so beat up already.
Sim Jones, The Bronx, 42 years, art handler at Sotheby's

How would you characterize the art handler's place in the art world?
Significant, and that's putting it mildly. After experts speak to a client, they have to come into the building. After it gets into the building, that's where we come in — we handle their art. You treat it almost like a living person because what you realize is the art itself is a one-time affair. You see it one time, and that's it. So you handle it as such.

How do you think art handlers are perceived in the art world?
I think we're the unsung heroes. That's my take on it. At Sotheby's, when the exhibition is on the floor, when you walk in, you see the exhibition. How it got there, no one has an idea. The art handlers have to come together with the experts to figure out how to set the exhibition up — what goes with what, does this piece lend itself to the one next to it, the lighting. Just simple things like putting a plinth under a piece — does it enhance it? That's what we do.

Rene Vega, New Jersey, art handler for 17 years

How would you characterize the art handler's place in the art world?

Right up there with an expert. Second to an expert, it goes right to the art handler. I think art handlers, to the clientele, not necessarily the employee, are very important. Outside of Sotheby's, we're doing the installation for the clients, not Sotheby's. We're going to their Park Avenue apartment, we're going to their Westbury estate, we're going to Greenwich. We're one on one with the actual client who spent the $100 million to buy the Picasso "Boy with a Pipe" — it's the art handlers who are hanging the artwork.

What's the most memorable story from your career as an art handler?
I guess when "Boy with a Pipe" broke the record for most expensive painting sold at auction a few years back. I hung that painting 15 times, and then there are the other art handlers who unframed, framed, and unframed the painting. The experts know about it, but they don't actually handle it.
Let's hope the two sides can agree to terms soon and everyone can go back to work.

Labels: art handlers, art market, art world, politics


Anonymous Rabbit Hole said...

That Sotheby's is doing well is only indicative of the spiraling US dollar backed global economy where the rich people are scrambling to hedge their wealth. It's a commodity orgy and Sotheby's is fortunate to be in a position to pick the low hanging fruit. Now that $2 trillion of additional debt has been pinned to the dollar there's no doubt Sotheby's will have another record quarter. Like gold, that Picasso will still have value when the fiat dollar is worthless.

8/04/2011 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe not. the bear market usually takes everything in its path. precious metals might survive. I veiw high dollar art as "hot money" playtoys.

I made better wages 15 yrs ago , the deflation monster will take out healthcare industrial complex and all the goverment union workers next. they will feel the pain like the rest of us.

until all the bad paper is eaten (by the banks) and everthing is restructered , were all fucked.

8/04/2011 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Interesting perspective.

2/21/2012 04:38:00 PM  

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