You could hear them a block away; their whistles and chants preceded them. About a hundred protesters stood outside Sotheby’s at the beginning of the auction house’s contemporary evening sale, the last important art sale of the year. ”We’re fired up! Won’t take it no more!” The crowd outside Sotheby’s was made up of N.Y.P.D., the auction house’s security, students from Hunter College, union members and Scabby, the oversize balloon rat who never seems to miss a strike, as well as a Scabby-sized balloon fat cat who squeezed a cigar in one paw and a union worker in the other. Picketers hoisted cutouts of the heads of Sotheby’s COO and CEO at the ends of long poles.
Most of the well-heeled buyers came from the north side, some shielding their eyes from the flashlights and camera flashes as they walked down a gauntlet of security guards. The women were mostly blond, dressed in black pencil skirts and clunking on tall black heels; the men were nondescript in suits and perhaps a coat. Some clutched the phonebook-sized sale guide; one woman jogged down the line as the protesters shouted “run!” Another woman looked horrified as a protester blocked her path inside; she tried to move around him, but was blocked by another protester who started blowing his whistle in her face. A Sotheby’s staffer grabbed her and escorted her to the door, where she was further inconvenienced by being asked to provide ID. Once inside, we watched her recount the trauma to a Sotheby’s concierge, who nodded along incredulously.
“Shame on you!” the protesters shouted at the one percent. “Go home!” An older gentleman standing near The Observer gave an enthusiastic thumbs down accompanied by a resounding “booooo!” One man on the other side of The Observer gave the Sotheby’s clients the finger, only to have a curly, gray-haired buyer with a checkered scarf rise to the occasion with a French-accented, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Once inside, the gray-haired man stood behind the glass like a kid at the zoo, sticking out his tongue, mouthing obscenities, then zealously grasping an imaginary phallus, pumping it a few times into his mouth before he grew bored or realized there were cameras, at which point he walked toward the escalator that lead into the auction. “He’s in Sotheby’s a lot,” said one of the Teamsters who used to be art handlers at Sotheby’s before the auction house locked out its workers in August.
The Observer was crowded in behind a wooden police barrier just in front of the door. We prodded the Teamster to tell us who the buyers were. “The Mugrabi family is already in there,” he said. “Oh! Larry Gagosian is here.” A spectacled man with a bloated face walked brusquely by and slipped into one of the revolving doors. “Steve Cohen!” our guide identified. “That was Steve Cohen, the billionaire art collector.”
Most of the auction attendees walked quickly past the scrum, cocking their heads to avoid the cameras and flashlights. One young man in a backpack cheered along with the picketers; another young, dark-haired gentleman walked through the gauntlet with his iPhone in front of his eyes, videotaping the penned-in mob.
The picket line was narrow; the protesters occupied a strip of sidewalk between the police barricades and a line of cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the curb. “They parked all these cars here so no one could get through,” one Teamster theorized. We glanced at the outermost auto, a Lexus. It had a ticket tucked under the wiper. Late,r we realized all the cars had tickets. By the end of the night, the windshield wipers also pinned down fliers that said “Sotheby’s Plays Fast and Loose with the Truth.”
We saw one gentleman accept one of the fliers, whether he realized what it was or not, on the way into the auction house. It read, in part:
Sotheby spokesperson Diana Phillips told the NY Times that the venerable auciton house locked its experienced art handlers during contract negotiations because it was unwilling to accept demands that virtually double the cost of their contract.’
But there are no such demands. In fact Sotheby’s is trying to starve the mostly minority workforce into submitting to management’s draconian cuts in benefits hours and job security.
In August, Sotheby’s reported its most profitable quarer in its 267-year history with profits soaring 48 percent from the previous year.
The protest reached a climax when at least three, possibly four–it was chaotic and hard to see–protesters attempted to get inside Sotheby’s. They didn’t get very far. The Observer recognized one union organizer, Eli Kent, the director of the LiUNA Local 78–not affiliated with the Teamsters–walking purposefully into the auction house. Once inside, he stood just behind the revolving door, staring intently at his co-conspirators. The protesters attempted to U-lock themselves together but security guards pounced quickly, dragging all of them outside. The protesters went limp as the police slapped handcuffs on. Other officers pushed back the agitated crowd, which had started rocking the barriers back and forth and beating drums with renewed vigor. But the crowd calmed down as the protesters were hauled away; we glimpsed Mr. Kent, with gritted teeth, a U-lock around his neck, his pant leg ripped, being carried away by two officers.
The Observer ran into Jason Ide, the 29-year-old president of the Teamsters Local 814, a union of about 1,000 art handlers, furniture movers and other tradesmen, and the man who led the union negotiations with Christie’s auction house earlier this year without a hitch. He echoed the union line–Sotheby’s brought in this lawfirm, Jackson Lewis, which is notorious for busting union chops. Sotheby’s thinks the union workers will give up after a few months, he said, although he acknowledged it’s possible that Sotheby’s is trying to move away from union labor altogether.
The Observer wandered back to the south side of the entrance, where students and a few members of a brass band were taking their breaths. We found ourselves next to a UAW worker who shouted ”Shame on you!” at two gentlemen who had just hopped out of a cab.
“They don’t seem ashamed,” we felt compelled to mention.
“No, they don’t feel ashamed,” she said. “But they do feel fear.”
That rang true. Of all the Occupy Wall Street stunts–even the march to the homes of millionaires–this protest was the only one that felt like it had the real rumblings of class war. Even Vikram Pandit threw the OWS protesters a bone; but here were two unpersuadable groups, those with nothing to lose versus those with “fuck you” money. The faces of the buyers we saw trickling into Sotheby’s revealed confusion and contempt, and the feeling was mutual. As we made tracks for the bus, we overheard one middle-aged protester crow: ”The look on some of those rich motherfuckers’ faces was priceless!”
Meanwhile, the sale netted $315.8 million, beating the estimated $270 million.