Massive Auction House Layoffs Reflect Broader Art Market Downturn

15Jan09
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The venerable auction house is reacting to the art market downturn with widespread layoffs

By Emily Waldorf

Though auction houses have never been known to be particularly generous with employees, the art market downturn has exacerbated the industry’s tendency towards thrift.  According to Bloomberg, Sotheby’s has fired 60 employees since December, including a rising star auctioneer and a 35 year Impressionist and Modern art veteran.  Apparently, the layoffs have been indiscriminate, affecting all departments and seniority levels.  Christie’s announced this week that they too were cutting jobs, as many as 80 employees in the New York office alone.  This is not a new trend for auction houses, as recently as 2001, during the price fixing scandal, Sotheby’s trimmed 400 jobs (14 %) and Christie’s laid off a similarly large chunk of its work force.

Poor sales results coupled with major losses from overly optimistic guarantees made to consignors made restructuring in 2009 inevitable.  The Bloomberg article highlights this predicament:

“In November in New York, 12 guaranteed works with a combined low estimate of $48 million failed to sell at Christie’s contemporary-art auction. As a result of these and other unsuccessful guarantees Christie’s has said it will no longer be offering minimum prices to sellers. Sotheby’s in London declined to release details of its own restructuring plans, according to Matthew Weigman, a spokesman, contacted this morning by telephone…’Bonhams are looking at this area as well,’ Julian Roup, head of that London-based auction house’s press office, said today in a telephone interview. He wouldn’t confirm or deny that the company had made job cuts.”

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Auctioneer Tobias Meyer in 2006, when the art market outlook was much sunnier

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