Sotheby's may be notching up colossal profits worldwide, but a group of its art handlers – the people who package and carry around the multi-million-dollar works going under the auction house's hammer – are threatening to go on strike.
A group of US art handlers claims the auction house is planning to reduce the number of full-time handlers it employs, leaving poorly-paid, untrained workers handling and
packaging some of the world's most expensive artworks. The auction house obviously disputes this.
Transatlantic traffic between London and New York is a huge part of the handlers' work, which involves dealing with artworks coming and going from destinations around the world.
An employee from a British handling company, who did not want to be named, said any strike could have "significant" repercussions for anyone shipping works between the Sotheby's bases in the US and Britain. It is common for sellers to transport artworks between countries, depending on the type of auction and the work involved. Specialists valuing different works are often based in different places around the world.
Jason Ide, the president of Teamsters Local 814, a union representing 42 New York handlers who work for Sotheby's, said striking was "on the table" if he could not find a suitable resolution to current negotiations.
The union wants to increase the number of handlers, while the auction house, he claims, is seeking to cut costs. Mr Ide is a former Sotheby's handler who during his time had dealt with "plenty" of paintings shipped between London and New York.
He told The Independent: "The key issue is full-time jobs. We have serious concerns. The company has done very well in the last few years and we have been asked to reduce the number of full-time qualified art handlers who handle art.
"We don't want low-wage non-union jobs handling Picassos. We don't think it's a good move. We are proposing folks who know how to do the job. Right now we have 42 members in the union; we would like to increase that to 60."
Despite the global recession, between 2009 and 2010, Sotheby's sales increased 74 per cent to £2.94bn. The company's president and chief executive, William Ruprecht, received £3.7m in salary and stocks the same year, a 150 per cent increase on his salary the previous year.
A Sotheby's spokesman said its British art handlers were not unionised. The spokesman added: "Sotheby's has a long history of a constructive and cooperative relationship with the unions that represent our employees, and has reached fair and equitable contracts in the past. We are committed to spending as much time as is necessary to reach a fair and equitable agreement in the current negotiations and to providing a wage and benefits package for our union colleagues which recognises and rewards their contributions to the success of Sotheby's."
Last month, a significant collection of Czech art held at the Greenwich, Connecticut home of collectors Norman and Suzanne Hascoe, 15 miles from New York, was put up for sale at Sotheby's in London.
In 2008, art handlers working for London's National Gallery dropped and damaged a Renaissance painting by Domenico Beccafumi while transporting it from an exhibition.