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Sotheby's 'The Scream' Sale Intensifies Criticism Of Art Handlers' Lockout

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Sothebys The Scream

NEW YORK -- On Wednesday, Sotheby's set a record: a pastel version of Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream" sold for a record $119.9 million, the most ever for a work of art at auction.

But on the street outside, Occupy Wall Street protesters and Teamsters Local 814 members were protesting. For nine months, Sotheby's has locked out the art handlers who move paintings in and out of the its auction house because it wants to negotiate a contract that reduces union members' work hours and increases the use of temporary workers.

Now, in the wake of the record Munch sale, both art world figures and the union that represents the art handlers are sharpening their rhetoric against the profitable auctioneer.

"What's the one percent up to this week?" asked Julian Tysh, a 31-year-old handler who had worked for the company for about six years before he got locked out. "What are they up to? They're gathering in an auction room to exchange millions and millions of dollars in investments through art."

"And what's the 99 percent doing?" he continued. "They're gathering in the streets to say that the same kind of corporate greed you're seeing at Sotheby's is what's destroying the economy and turning us into a third world country."

The final sale price for the Munch painting included $12.9 million in commission fees for the art house. Teamsters Local 814, which represents the handlers, says the yearly contract for all 42 union members would cost the company $3.3 million. The union also represents handlers at competing auction house Christie's.

"With the tremendous success that Sotheby's had last night, there's just no reason to keep us out on the street, keep us suffering," Tysh said.

The art handlers are not standing alone in their contract dispute. On Monday, Paddy Johnson, the critic who blogs for Art Fag City, launched a petition on Change.org in support of the workers that has already garnered more than 1,700 signatures.

Johnson said despite the impression some people might have that art handlers get paid cushy union wages for a straightforward job, it's not easy work.

"It involves working with a lot of rich people," she said, "who are often not very nice. So you have to be able to manage relationships."

"Those connections can't be made over a six-month period of time," by temporary workers, she added. "As someone who has done a fair amount of art handling -- and actually stopped because I got fired -- it's not an easy job."

Tysh, who has been relying on unemployment benefits since the lockout began, said union handlers must learn how to do specialized handling for tricky media like terra cotta or bronze statues. He's a fan of Munch, he added.

"It's a famous portrayal of human anguish and suffering. So you know, there's a little irony there -- 42 of us have been made to suffer for nine months. But yeah, you know, I think it's a good painting."

Signers of Johnson's petition include street artist Shepard Fairey, art collector Andy Stillpass and photographer James Welling. On Wednesday, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz lambasted Sotheby's for the lockout on CBS "This Morning."

Lauren Gioia, a spokeswoman for Sotheby's, declined to immediately respond to the union's criticisms. In December, Bloomberg noted that the company had already spent an additional $2.4 million on the temporary workers.

In that article, Sotheby's was quoted as saying the lockout was "the last thing we wanted.”

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