Love’s Labor Lost: Lockout at Sotheby’s

Updated: March 1, 2012 at 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.

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.

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