After this report was first published, Bonhams said it would temporarily close most of its locations, including its Los Angeles auction house. The L.A. location is set to close indefinitely to the public on Friday.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bonhams Los Angeles held an art auction with more than a dozen people in attendance, including collectors, registrants, and employees. Bidders competed for Granville Redmond paintings and Frederic Remington sculptures, spending close to a million dollars on art as cities across the country ordered businesses to close and residents to shelter in place because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The auction was largely a success. After all, Bonhams had little competition from rival auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, who recently closed their doors in accordance with precautionary measures set by the World Health Organization to prevent Covid-19 from spreading. But according to several employees interviewed by ARTnews, the Bonhams sale may have come at a high cost for attendees.
Two weeks ago, the head of visitor services returned from a business trip with a fever and cold. She tested negative for the flu but couldn’t access coronavirus screening because of a nationwide shortage of test kits in America. Because she had traveled shortly before getting sick, doctors said she was a risk factor. She remained in the office until last Thursday and was not present for yesterday’s auction; however, employees worry that her symptoms have spread through the office, and coworkers have reported feeling feverish and unwell in recent days.
In spite of workers at the house falling ill, Bonhams managers and human resource officials have pressured employees to come to the office to work. Leaders at the auction house have also denied staff requests to work from home, according to employee accounts and documentation reviewed by ARTnews.
“There has been pressure to come into the office at all costs,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I would like to see Bonhams put client and employee health first.”
A Bonhams representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In defending its decision to remain open—even as museums, galleries, and other auction houses close internationally—Bonhams told employees that it was following the recommendations of public officials. Over the weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the temporary closure of restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues as the coronavirus outbreak worsens in California. And on Monday, the White House released national guidelines that included avoiding groups of more than 10 people. In his public remarks, Mayor Garcetti has agreed with the drastic measures. “You still can harm yourself and your loved ones, so take this seriously,” he said in a speech yesterday. “You need to follow the rules, the restrictions, and guidelines that we have put forward. Public health experts are guiding this advice.”
Auction houses like Bonhams are generally client-facing institutions that thrive on personal relationships with collectors, many of whom are above the age of 60 and therefore at increased risk of dying from the coronavirus, according to Bonhams workers. The disease is also difficult to detect and is highly contagious, even when the infected are asymptomatic. Nevertheless, employees said that their concerns of possibly infecting bidders at yesterday’s auction were dismissed by Bonhams officials.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the global economy to a halt, and companies are under immense pressure to keep business running as usual in the midst of a financial crisis. As more cities order corporations to allow their staff to work from home, Bonhams has increasingly relied on its Los Angeles office to keep the salesroom open. Managers have denied work from home requests, telling employers that they must take paid time off (PTO) instead.
“At this time, neither California nor New York have passed statewide laws or implemented statewide public health orders requiring, prohibiting, or limiting remote work for employees who are not ill,” Lauren Mitchum, Bonhams vice president of business operations in the United States said in emails to workers, emphasizing that the company was taking matters very seriously, monitoring developments, and looking to support employees. “We cannot keep the sales going and service our clients with such requests made with little or no notice.”