Love’s Labor Lost: Lockout at Sotheby’s

| October 20, 2011 3:03 AM | Updated: March 1, 2012 12:38 PM

There is a right way and a wrong way to pick up a $15,000 chair that was made in 18th century France. According to Sotheby’s art handler Luis Baucage, this kind of knowledge matters when you’re handling high-priced antiques. “But there’s more than a price tag underneath the cushion,” Baucage cautioned. “There’s an entire history to learn.”

I can tell you the difference between a fake Louis XV chair and a real one just by looking at the screws.
—Luis Baucage, Art Handler
Baucage is one of 43 art handlers at the auction house who have spent the start of Sotheby’s fall season on the picket line outside the company’s building at York Avenue and 71st Street.

On Aug. 1, after contract negotiations stalled, Sotheby’s sent letters to the art handlers telling them not to return for work. Their dispute involves shortened work weeks and also the collective bargaining rights of new hires. Sotheby’s initiated the lockout a month after the art handlers’ contract expired. Then they hired temporary employees to replace the union art handlers. The lockout comes after the company announced record profits for the first half of 2011.

In a written statement, Sotheby’s said, “Our union colleagues are valued members of the Sotheby’s community and we had hoped to reach an agreement that was fair to both sides.” The auction house added that the threat of a strike would have put its autumn auction season in jeopardy and thus gave the company no choice but to make alternative arrangements. Sotheby’s “will continue to bargain in good faith with the help of a federal mediator so we can reach an agreement and so that our colleagues can come back to work.”

But, according to the union, for the eight months the art handlers, who normally make between $16 and $30 an hour, have been out of work and without health insurance. They receive $400 per week in unemployment payments and each person also gets an additional $200 per week from the Teamsters Union, which sets aside funds for strikes and lockouts.

MetroFocus asked those on the picket line in October about their role in the world of high-end art auctions, and how they feel about the work they so artfully handle.

Charles Reeves lives in the Bronx. He's worked at Sotheby's for 23 years. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Charles Reeves, 65

On being an art handler: When I first started working at Sotheby’s I was nervous because I was handling pieces that were worth millions of dollars. I really had to learn a whole new set of skills that are specific to high-end auction houses. My excitement helped me develop an expertise. From the moment a piece arrives to the day it’s auctioned off, we’ve probably handled it at least 25 to 30 times. Between the storage process, the private showings, the photographs and the final exhibition, we really get to know pieces.

Our job is about trust. People have to be comfortable with you because some of these pieces are thousands of years old. Whether a piece is worth $15,000 or $15 million, the owner still values the artwork so I treat everything the same way. I could be wrapping a piece that’s going around the corner or about fly overseas, and I’d still handle them as if they were the same.

Favorite art objects: I really love American furniture myself, but I also enjoy some of our top sellers, such as Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe” and other impressionist painters, like Renoir.

Life without work: It’s not been easy. Of course, we’ve been able to collect unemployment and the union has supported us as well, but we’re ready to go back to work. When your job is on the line and you’re honored to work here, you just have to do what you got to do.

Luis Baucage lives in New Jersey. He's worked at Sotheby's for 18 years. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Luis Baucage, 44

On being an art handler: I specialize mostly in furniture. I worked in the warehouse for 13 years. From there, I went into fine arts and then I tried all different kinds of departments because I made it my responsibility to learn as much as I could in order to help the company.

I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with a lot of experts. I can tell you the difference between a fake Louis XV chair and a real one just by looking at the screws; most were jointed together by dovetails, not using screws.

I love learning about the history of the furniture and how each piece was made. We spend a lot of time with our clients so I think being knowledgeable about the art also makes the auction process easier for them.

Favorite art objects: I handled a kneehole desk that was sold here at Sotheby’s in 1975 for $2,000. It came back 15 years later and it was going for $5 to $8 million! I was also honored to work here during Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ first estate sale. We worked 13 hour shifts for several days.

Life without work: We bought a house two weeks before the lockout. And my wife and I just had a baby, so it’s been difficult. I don’t know long the lockout will last, but Sotheby’s could end this anytime and restart the contract negotiation process.

Anwarii Musa lives in Queens. He's worked Sotheby's for five years. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Anwarii Musan,24

On being an art handler: I’m actually the youngest art handler at Sotheby’s. I started working here when I was 19, straight out of Nassau Community College. My options were to either work here or to take a job in construction. I wanted to develop a career path and expand my horizons so I decided to become an art handler.

It’s a blessing just to be around art everyday. I’m exposed to so many different cultures and styles of art…One day I’m handling American contemporary paintings and the next it’s vases from South East Asia.

Favorite art objects: I handled this piece called “The Lioness.” It was estimated to be to the oldest Egyptian piece mankind ever made. People would gravitate towards it, so it’s amazing to think about how I held that piece of art in my own hands.

Life without work: I’ve been collecting unemployment and the union has also supported us financially, but it gets really stressful. I try to picket almost everyday though. Sometimes when the football game is on I stay in and watch, but I know that I should go out with the other art handlers so I hop on the train and head into the city.

I just want the people to know that we’re out here everyday for a purpose, we’re not just making noise. The clients seem to be so focused on the auction and people from the community don’t always come inside the building, but they wake up to our whistles. I want them to know that they’re actually waking up to our struggle. Now that we’ve been out here for three months, people from the community have started coming by and asking us questions.

Sim Jones lives in the South Bronx. He's worked at Sotheby's for more 40 years. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Sim Jones, 65

On being an art handler: After 40 years of handling art for the same auction house, I’ve realized that, as a people, we are all really similar to each other. For instance, I’ve handled a neolithic jar from china that resembled an object made by American Indians. I’ve also worked with some of Keith Haring’s paintings that look like our pieces from the Egyptian department.

Since each piece is one-of-a-kind, we have to get to know it well in order to assess how it should be handled. This aspect of our job makes it so we really develop relationships with our pieces. Over time, it’s as if we become one and the same with each piece of art.

Favorite art objects: The first paintings I fell in love with were Guy Wiggins’ snow scenes, but that’s just because I’m a city kid. I love what he does with his paint. He brings out the light, and you really get a feel for New York City.

Life without work: I’ve been going crazy! I need to get back to work, I’m at the point where I miss working with the pieces. For the young guys out here, this has got to be rough. I’m about to retire and my kids are grown, but for them, their entire future and career is at stake.

Ed. note: This story has been updated to include a response from Sotheby’s.

  • Judy Evans

    These people are obviously a valuable part of your organization. They enjoy their work, are loyal, knowledgeable, and do a good job. Not easy qualities to find. You would do well to give them a raise and a good contract. Remember you are entrusting your wealth to their hands.

    Judy Evans

    • Joann

      Thank you!!! From your mouth to God’s ears,

  • CoeTug

    Typical. Destory the real workers, hire on the cheap and put the increased cash in the pocket of the super rich management. Let them do the moving and see how they like it, how they do. But that would require them to do real work.

  • Elin Lake-Ewald

    We have worked with many art handlers over the years and every one of them has shown great respect for what they are doing, and also know a surprising amount about the art they are dealing with. There is much to be said for the “feel” of an art object. It speaks to one nearly as much as the visual. But who is moving the art these days if the art handlers are on strike? Perhaps the handlers should be required to take certain art courses prior to working in museums or auction houses and then they could call what they do a profession and not just a physical occupation.

  • Rich

    Denigrating the livelihoods of their skilled “workers” for more corporate profits it seems has reached epidemic proportions in this country…..Sotheby’s should be ashamed, but corporate entity’s can’t really feel any emotions…even if the Supreme Court says they have the same rights as real humans….Insatiable greed knows no bounds or decency!

  • Ken Meyer

    Amazing, isn’t it, that for all their alleged skills, Sotheby’s has somehow been able to function without their services for such a period of time. And isn’t it a wonder that the State of New York still hasn’t figured out that those involved in a labor dispute shouldn’t be receiving unemployment benefits, and that paying them only accentuates the problem.

    Our nation’s organized labor is really competitive, isn’t it? Given that, why on earth would firms would seek their labor sources elsewhere? How could they POSSIBLY conceive of wanting to employ the most efficient, cost-effective labor in light of individuals as “skilled” and worthy as these? The HORROR!

    • Joann Fisher

      No, it is not amazing, what is amazing is that you feel they don’t deserve to collect unemployment. Do you have any idea how much the locked out workers receive??? No you don’t Mr. Meyers,well I can tell you, you couldn’t survive one day with the amount they receive for one week. You probably spend more than they receive going out for dinner one night. The difference is that for us every little bit helps. We have a mortgage to pay and a daughter in collage, so that unemployment helps us. These men have been fighting to get there jobs back. They don’t want to sit around and collect unemployment and as far as skills goes I can tell your for a FACT my husband is very skilled. He has been doing this for over 30 years And WORTHY he is MORE than WORTHY to work at Sotheby’s or any other company for that matter. Sotheby’s is lucky to have someone with his skills working for them. Without these men do you know how many restorers they have coming in? Due to those unskilled art handlers they have coming in now? That’s the HORROR!!!

      • Ken Meyer

        Joann Fisher;

        If your husband is that “skilled” and equally “worthy”, then he should have no problem finding other employment…and he sure as the devil shouldn’t be receiving welfare (of whatever nature) from the rest of us who ARE willing to work for wages offered.

        As for your comment of …

        “Without these men do you know how many restorers they have coming in? Due to those unskilled art handlers they have coming in now? ”

        ….well, it appears that Sotheby’s is content with “how many restorers they have coming in”, and is doing quite well without the services of your husband and his comrades. And that DESPITE the efforts of your husband and his fellows at tryng to interrupt the daily goings-on of the business as much as possible.

        Also, if you have “have a mortgage to pay and a daughter in collage [sic]”, then perhaps you and your husband should have thought twice before turning away from a legitimate wage offer. And, if “they don’t want to sit around collecting unemployment”, then why don’t they get off their dead butts and GET A JOB! I’m sure there are places that are hiring (McDonalds, etc), *IF* (not a given!) they’re “worthy” enough.

        Lastly, as for your claim of “that unemployment helps us”…I’m sure it does. You do, however, recognize that it *IS* a form of WELFARE, and that your husband’s refusal to work for a decent wage is putting HIS burden on the rest of us who ARE willing to work.

        Sorry, but as you might have noticed, I have little truck with dead-beats. Deal with it.

        • Joann

          I welcome your response Mr. Meyer, albeit not a prompt one. Perhaps your job has kept you from responding sooner. Lucky you! Your comment about my “skilled” and “worthy” husband easily finding other employment shows your ignorance to the current job market. It is also curious to me why you respond with such fervor. Perhaps you are employed by Sotheby’s at this time, and it is therefore in your best interest to malign and deter my husband and is “comrades” from returning to their positions.

          You also comment that Sotheby’s has no problem with the number of restorers they must now employ as their current handlers are inexperienced and causing a good amount of damage. Perhaps they don’t mind sharing their incredible annual profits with these professionals. It should be noted, however that the clients would perhaps rather have an unrestored – original piece for their collections! I wonder if they are revealing the restorations to these clients and would be interested to know their response. This is for another day!

          Further, you commented that my husband and I should have thought twice about turning away from a legitimate wage offer, as we carry a mortgage and have a daughter in college. Again, Mr. Meyer you are mistaken. My husband and his “comrades” did not then, and do not now, have a problem with the wages offered by Sotheby’s. In actuality the issue is more in line with job security. They are fighting for many issues, not the least of which is job security. In fact it is the most important. I wonder, Mr. Meyer, how you would feel if you could be fired from your position, wherever it may be, at any time for no reason. Would you tell your wife or family you are selling the house because you are not sure when you may lose your job and wages? Would you never make plans for the future because you cannot be sure for how long you will be working and earning wages? Would you tell your family they could not make plans for their future for the same reason? I think not!

          As for us receiving “welfare”, I take exception to that comment. Unemployment Insurance has to be earned. The Dept. of Labor decides who does and does not quality for this insurance. Not you, nor I. My family has never at any time in our lives ever asked anyone for help for anything. We are not happy about this turn of events in our family, or for having to depend upon Unemployment Insurance for our livelihood, We are, however confident that we will weather this storm together.

          I realize how you may feel, and how it must seem to you, reading some of the comments on Facebook and other places, but please keep in mind that the shoe could be on your foot at some point in the future. I do not wish that for you or for anyone. Please try to keep an open mind. You can never really be sure of someone until you have walked in their shoes. For your sake, Mr. Meyer, I hope that does not happen.

          • Ken Meyer


            I’m sorry to have offended you. I just took it for granted that, if your husband was “worthy” and “skilled”, his finding a job with another employer – based on the MARKET VALUE of his “skills” and “worthiness” – wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t realize that the rest of us owed him a living on the basis of what HE considered his “skills” and how worthy HE considered himself to be, rather than on what they market determined his labor to be worth. My bad!

            However, in terms of “job security”, it occurs to me that the best guarantee of such “security” would be one’s ACTUAL “skills” and “worthiness”…and NOT a display of disloyalty in which one refuses the only available legitimate offers tendered for one’s labor. My mistake! You see, I forgot that because your husband was “worthy” (in your eyes, if not necessarily in those of his former employer) and had “skills” (which apparently weren’t all that hard to be replaced by his former employer either), you and he ought to be given special consideration; that your combined “worth” shouldn’t have any correspondence with market value, but rather with what you believe society OWES you. That about got it?

            You may take “exception” to the “welfare” comment all you like; it STILL doesn’t negate the fact that what you are after is WELFARE! It’s not “earned” by a person engaged in a job action; rather, it’s a toll on the elements of society who are WILLING to work and actually ARE working.

            As for your desire for “job security”….well, give me a break! Given their actions, do you really believe that your husband and his comrades deserve “job security”, or any job at all, for that matter? They’re functioning as parasites on society, and are actively engaged in disrupting that society that supports them. That “worthy” of “job security”, you think? I don’t…and I suspect there are a lot of the PRODUCTIVE elements of society that feel the same way.

            As for the “shoe being on the other foot”…well, sorry Babe; ain’t gonna’ happen. I’m not like you or your husband. I believe in CONSTRUCTIVE action; not destructive. Nor do I believe the world owes me a form of free lunch, a concept which you appear to be dedicated to.

            Lastly, in terms of your question of….

            “how you would feel if you could be fired from your position, wherever it may be, at any time for no reason”

            ….that’s the way it’s been my entire adult life, and it’s the way it SHOULD be! One’s “security” ought to be based on what he/she has to OFFER, not some artifice that keeps them at a “job” in which they’re neither wanted nor needed. I realize that “gimme, gimme” artists such as yourself might have a hard time dealing with that concept (i.e. – that perhaps employers should NOT be required to continue “employing” people they don’t want!), and think that market forces shouldn’t be the primary factor. To wit: you want a “free lunch”.

            Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t deserve it. I suggest you tell your husband to get his “worthy” hind end back on the job that was offered him, or to go out and find another one….and quit trying to “earn” unemployment/welfare on the backs of the rest of us.

            Lastly, your comment regarding “We will weather this storm together”, and saying your family “has never at any time in our lives ever asked anyone for help for anything”, what a load of CRAP! You’re parasiting off the PRODUCTIVE elements of society now, asking them for employment terms that your [husband’s] “worth” doesn’t justify, and “unemployment” benefits for “unemployment” that you and/or your husband brought on YOURSELVES. Is that your idea of “weather[ing]”? Really have no shame, do you?

            Finally, have no connection with Sotheby’s whatsoever. Just speaking as an individual who believes the “gimme, gimme” attitude of you, and those like you, is responsible to a major degree for the problems our country is facing today. And “no”, although I’ve been out of a job for short periods, I’ve NEVER asked for any form of public welfare…including “unemployment”. Always had too much pride (and forethought) for that.

  • taylor

    I live in this neighborhood, I’m am the 99%, and these protests are taking a real toll on my life. I come home to work several days a week to whistling, screaming, honking, chanting. My dogs are terrified of all the noise and won’t even go outside until it’s over. It’s very stressful. It’s just too much. Let the people of this neighborhood live in peace, please. The union might not deserve the treatment it has received from Sotheby’s, but neighborhood residents don’t deserve to be disrupted like this either.

  • Joann

    I truly feel for you. And as a wife of one of those art handlers from Sotheby’s. I would like to say we’re sorry. I know that doesn’t mean much with everything that is going on, but I just want you to know we wish this was over already our selfs. It has been to long and to many people are suffing. the people that live near by. And also the Sotheby’s workers, We are all hoping this will be over by the end of next week.The men are just trying very hard to get their jobs back. Once again so sorry for all the stress it is causing you and your neighbors. It is not they intent.

  • leo solar

    Cut the BS. Give them a raise and sign the contract.

    • Ken Meyer


      “Cut the B.S.” is right. If those locked-out aren’t willing to work for the wages offered, then maybe they should move on and find employment elsewhere. (that’d show Sotheby’s, wouldn’t it! :-) After all, I’m sure there are all sorts of firms out there which appreciate how “worthy” and “skilled” they are, and would love to compensate them on the basis of what THEY demand, instead of what the MARKET determines their “worth” to be.

      Such places exist do exist, don’t they? Surely they can be found somewhere between here and the end of the yellow brick road!

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