Occupy Wall Street protesters held a boisterous demonstration in front of Sotheby’s New York headquarters on the evening of Nov. 9, 2011 as the auction house conducted its biggest sale of contemporary art in three years. More than 100 protesters chanting “Art for the masses, not the ruling classes!” and “They say cut back, we say fight back”, confronted well-to-do art collectors as they disembarked from their limousines. Escorted into the auction house by New York City policemen and Sotheby’s security staff, the wealthy clients participated in frenzied bidding that fetched the auction house $315.8 million.

In its coverage of the demonstration Businessweek quoted Richard Feigen, a New York art dealer who attended the Sotheby’s auction, “It demonstrates the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. You see people demonstrating out there, people are out of jobs and their houses. And people in here are dumping millions into art.”

The protest was organized by Occupy Wall Street activists and forty three union art handlers employed by Sotheby’s but locked out by the auction house since July 29, 2011 over a labor contract dispute. Sotheby’s is demanding the replacement of several of its skilled full-time handlers with temporary non-union workers who will work shortened 36-hour work weeks without benefits. The company also insists that worker’s give up their 401k plan. When contract negotiations stalled, Sotheby’s locked its art handlers out. While Sotheby’s refuses to pay its art handlers a decent wage, The Art Newspaper reported on May 2011 that Sotheby’s CEO, William Ruprecht, was awarded $6 million in compensation for fiscal year 2010 (up from $2.4 million in 2009). All told, executive pay increases for Sotheby’s top five CEOs came to $15.3 million, a 125% increase from 2009. Sotheby’s profits for fiscal year 2010 were over $680 million.

As the affluent were ushered into Sotheby’s auction by the police, locked out art handlers carried aloft a huge inflatable rat and an inflatable “fat cat” strangling a worker. While Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted “Shame!”, a brass band blared in the streets as demonstrators blocked the entrance to Sotheby’s with a sit-in action; several activists chained themselves together. Police swooped in and dragged the protesters from the entrance, making 8 arrests. One of those being arrested said, “I am here because Sotheby’s is the 1%, their CEO makes sixty thousand dollars a day, but apparently they can’t keep their union workers employed.”

At the auction a quartet of abstract paintings by the now deceased American painter, Clyfford Still (1933-1980), went for $114 million, twice their asking price. One of Still’s abstract canvases, 1949-A-No. 1, sold for $61.6 million. In the mid-1930s Still painted figurative realist works influenced by the American Scene school, but by the late 1940s he turned to abstract expressionism. Describing his having embraced abstraction, he once said; “Our age, it is of science, of mechanism, of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage.” By the 1950s Still was disillusioned with the art world, severing ties with galleries and even turning down an invitation to exhibit works at the 1957 Venice Biennale. He continued to make art until his death, but sold little and exhibited even less.

One can only imagine what Still would say about his paintings selling for tens of millions at Sotheby’s during the most severe economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

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