Sotheby’s and Christie’s Place Hundreds of Workers on Furlough and Cut Executive Pay as Art Businesses Feel the Impact of Coronavirus Postponements

Sotheby's is furloughing approximately 12 percent of its staff.

Pyke Koch, Florentijnse tuin (Florentine Garden) (1938). Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's.
Pyke Koch, Florentijnse tuin (Florentine Garden) (1938). Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Major auction houses are feeling the impact of the economic quake set off by COVID-19. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are furloughing workers, cutting executive pay, and searching high and low for cost savings now that their salesrooms are largely closed, major New York spring sales have been either postponed to June or pushed entirely online, and marquee estates and consignments like the $700 million Macklowe collection are pulling back from the market until the outlook improves.

Sotheby’s is furloughing approximately 200 people, or roughly 12 percent of its staff—measures that were first reported by the Wall Street JournalIn a town hall meeting with employees on April 1, Sotheby’s newly appointed CEO Charles Stewart informed the auction house that mandatory furloughs and some staff cuts were taking place, although he did not offer concrete figures. Artnet News understands that specialists were not affected, but some support staffers, including cataloguers, who work on projects related to live auctions have been placed on furlough.

Employees in the US and the UK who were not laid off or furloughed will take a 20 percent pay cut through June 1. Executives, including Stewart himself, will take an additional 10 percent cut. Meanwhile, overtime pay will be temporarily suspended and compensation incentives will be largely delayed until fall.

The auction house, which employs roughly 1,700 people across 40 countries, closed 80 offices and 10 salesrooms on March 22 due to the outbreak.

“Like many businesses, Sotheby’s is adjusting to the challenging circumstances resulting from COVID-19 and taking the necessary steps to protect our employees and the future of the company,” a Sotheby’s representative said in a statement shared with Artnet News. “We have considered every avenue including temporary compensation adjustments (including our leadership), furloughs and, regrettably, a small number of staff reductions. While we weather this period, we remain focused on supporting our clients with a variety of services and ensuring that we are well positioned for the moment we can resume our normal business operations.”

Since the house was acquired by telecom billionaire Patrick Drahi—who has been dubbed “the cost killer” in the French press—at the end of last year, it has already experienced significant personnel changes. Dozens of staffers have departed in recent months, either through layoffs or due to a voluntary severance program put in place for top executives as part of the merger agreement.

Meanwhile, Christie’s has not been immune to the squeeze, either. A representative for the house said that the company is taking “necessary steps to adapt to the ongoing situation including increased digital engagement and private sales as well as commensurate, targeted cost management measures.” Those measures include reductions on travel and events, cutbacks on work with consultants, outside contractors and temporary staff, and taking advantage of subsidized furlough programs like those offered by the UK and French governments.

The company also noted that it is running a “voluntary salary sacrifice for senior executives” who will waive a portion of their monthly pay for “a defined period of time.” The measures “are difficult, but will not compromise our service to clients, and are intended to help protect our company and particularly staff whose wages and salaries are lower,” the statement continued.

Phillips auction house declined to offer details of any cost-saving measures. “We are reviewing our operations on a daily basis and have no updates at this time,” a representative said.

A spokesperson for Bonhams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


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