A photo of the original Christie's sweatshirt on Art Handlers Alliance's Instagram (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

A new collaboration between Christie’s and Highsnobiety is drawing criticism online for aestheticizing art handlers’ labor at the same time that some workers say Christie’s benefits from their low pay. The merchandise released jointly by the auction house and fashion and lifestyle brand included crew sweatshirts, t-shirts, and tote bags reading “art handler” in all-caps and thick font — priced at $125, $65, and $50, respectively — that have since been taken down from the company’s website.

A Highsnobiety article announcing the line, since removed, trumpeted a new “era where the lines between streetwear and luxury have officially blurred.”

Some art handlers and cultural workers chafed at this marketing spin. Ian (who asked that his last name not be used), an organizer at the Art Handler’s Alliance, told Hyperallergic that the new line and its associated marketing campaign were “extremely offensive.”

“Art handlers are severely underpaid in the industry and are constantly told that their employers can’t afford to pay them more,” he said. In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Sotheby’s furloughed 12% of its workers, with both Christie’s and Sotheby’s implementing cost-cutting measures. According to Ian, some major auction houses have never fully reinstated their staff since then: “Not only are they operating with less art handlers, they’re putting more auctions on the schedule. People are just saying these are impossible deadlines,” Ian said.

Christie’s has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. Neda Whitney, head of marketing for the Americas at Christie’s, who initially posted a video of models jumping on crates and cosplaying as art handlers, has since deleted her Instagram. Highsnobiety, which posted on Instagram over a week ago announcing the launch of Department X, has since removed that post from its feed.

Promotional photos for the new fashion line show models brandishing an “art handler” tote bag precariously at the summit of a platform ladder and sporting the sweatshirts on top of industrial dollies as if they’re skateboards. Other photos parody and glamorize auctions. In one, a model juggles seven landline calls making bids; in another, two models hold auction paddles, simulating a competitive round.

A fictional t-shirt by Instagram user @sugarbombing parodies Christie’s new collaboration with Highsnobiety. (image courtesy @Sugarbombing)

On Instagram, an art handler who goes by the social media handle @sugarbombing shared that she had worked for 10 years in the industry, and posted a parody of the t-shirt that reads “Christie’s Exploits Art Handlers.”

In an email, she told Hyperallergic that she was upset by the collaboration for “many reasons.” “The way they portray us as art handlers, the commodification of our style and jobs and specifically the exoticization of the working class, exploiting the concept of art handler to appeal to the hypebeast collectors of their recently launched Streetwear department, is cringey to say the least,” she said.

“Art handlers are some of the lowest paid workers in the art world,” she continued. “Christie’s is not offering a living wage to their art handlers… [and] condemning them to live precariously in New York City,” she continued. “I am certain that an institution like Christie’s can afford to offer better wages but they don’t.”

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s posted record sales in 2021. In late September, Christie’s announced the launch of Department X, a new wing of the auction house dedicated to streetwear, sneakers, and sports collectibles, which spearheaded the collaboration with Highsnobiety.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.