Tobias Meyer, the fastidious German auctioneer at Sotheby’s, stood at the podium in the beige auction room two weeks ago, sweating gently in an uncreased suit and violet collar. Sotheby’s had a strong lineup of 73 lots, including four paintings from the “triumphant period” of Clyfford Still, an early proponent of Abstract Expressionism. But the Dow was down three points, the Italian prime minister had just announced his resignation over economic turmoil, and there was a mob of about 150 protesters outside the auction house’s glass facade, heckling the buyers and collectors on their way in.
“Shame on you! Go home!” protesters shouted as the likes of Eli Broad, Larry Gagosian and Jose Mugrabi scurried past the picket line before being sucked through the revolving door into the marble vacuum of the auction house. A small brass band outside Sotheby’s pumped out a zippy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a pair of girls clapped and two-stepped on the sidewalk. An older gentleman leaned over the metal barricades placed by the police and gave a zealous thumbs-down. “Boooo!” he taunted, then turned to Gallerist. “This is fun, isn’t it?”
The protesters were picketing on behalf of the Teamsters Local 814, the union that represents the 42 art handlers at Sotheby’s. When the union contract came up for renewal in July, Sotheby’s hired the infamous union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis and proposed changes to overtime, benefits and restrictions on the use of temporary laborers, a package the union says amounts to a pay cut and a ploy to avoid paying benefits. The negotiations stalled, and on Aug. 1, Sotheby’s told the art handlers not to come back to work. Since then, protesters at Occupy Wall Street have seized on the juxtaposition of Upper East Side art buyers versus blue collar art movers, giving what might have been a routine picket line an unexpected jolt.
One protester gave the Sotheby’s clients the finger, provoking a gray-haired buyer with a checkered scarf. “Fuck you! Fuck you!” he shouted in a French accent. Once inside, he stood behind the glass window like a kid at the zoo, sticking out his tongue, mouthing obscenities, zealously grasping an imaginary phallus and pumping it a few times into his mouth before he grew bored or realized how many cameras were around. “He’s in Sotheby’s a lot,” one of the locked-out art handlers told Gallerist as he aimed a flashlight at arriving clients’ eyes. One picketer hoisted a cutout of Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht’s head on the end of a long pole. “I’m Bill the CEO,” the back of the sign said. “I gave myself a 125% raise, HA.”
The real Mr. Ruprecht was inside with “a big African American bodyguard,” said one veteran art adviser, who noted that it was the first time they’d seen Mr. Ruprecht with a detail. “Sotheby’s had staff beyond, beyond,” the adviser noted. “It was like a hand-off. It started many feet ahead of the building, and as you got to the corner, a guy came and walked you a few feet to the next, who walked you a few feet to the next, so you’re not alone for a step.”
Sotheby’s was worried about protecting its clientele, but it likely was more worried about protecting the art. “I’m just always amazed that nothing hideous has happened,” the adviser said. “What’s to stop a Tony Shafrazi from coming in with a spray can, which is what he did to Guernica? The thing is, he never went to jail for it and it actually gave him some business credibility in the art world!”