Ernie Barnesthe most famous painting of “The sugar shack”, an exultant dance scene which was presented on the cover of the album “I Want You” by Marvin Gaye and during the closing credits of the TV sitcom ‘Good Times,’ which sold for a whopping $15.3 million at Christie’s 20th Century auction on Thursday night at the energy trader Bill Perkins. That was 76 times his high estimate of $200,000.
“I stole it – I would have paid a lot more,” Perkins, 53, said in a phone interview after the sale. “For some segments of America, it’s more famous than the ‘Mona Lisa’.”
Although based in Houston, Perkins said he didn’t want to risk being on the phone, so he flew to New York with his fiancée, Lara Sebastian, to attend the sale in person. He was afraid of being outbid by someone who had more means. “What if Oprah shows up? What if P. Diddy shows up? he remembered thinking. “I will not be able to buy this piece.”
If anything happened to get in the way of Perkins at the auction, he said he and Sebastian had a plan. “I said, ‘Hey, baby, if I have a problem or if I pass out, don’t worry about me’: keep bidding.’”
Perkins was amazed by the sheer scale of the competition, which attracted a total of 22 bidders and lasted 10 minutes. “It started and it got crazy,” he said.
In the end, the auction ended with Perkins against someone else in the room – the artistic adviser Gurr Johnsaccording to art journalist Josh Baer – who is bidding on behalf of an unidentified person over the phone.
“He turned to me at one point and said, ‘I’m not going to stop,'” Perkins said of Johns. “To which I replied, ‘Then I’ll make you pay.'”
The staggering price — more than double that of a Cézanne for sale, and more than a monnet and a de Kooning – reflected not only the rarity of Barnes’ image, which was painted in 1976, but also the increased interest in the work of black artists at a time when the art world was waking up to diversity issues and is strongly committed to broadening the canon. The result overthrew Barnes previous auction record of $550,000, set last November with the sale of his 1978 painting “Soul of the Ballroom” also at Christie’s.
Born in 1938 in Durham, North Carolina, the young Barnes discovers the paintings of the old masters at a prominent lawyer where his mother oversees the household staff (his father is an employee of a tobacco company).
Barnes attended North Carolina College of Durham – now North Carolina Central University – on an athletic scholarship and continued to play professional football, but his heart remained in drawing and painting. Physical movement continued to inform his works, which often featured kinetic figures. Barnes created five official posters for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and completed commissions for clients including the National Basketball Association, Sylvester Stallone and Kanye West. He died in 2009.
Perkins, who grew up in Jersey City where his father, a lawyer, and his mother, an educator, owned several works by abstract artist Norman Lewis, said the painting by Barnes – which he saw featured on the album de Gaye and “Good Times” — was formative in his artistic consciousness.
“You’ve never seen paintings of black people by black artists,” he said. “It introduced not just me, but all of America to Barnes’ work. It’s the only work of art that’s ever done that. And these are firsts. So it will never happen again. Already. The cultural significance of this piece is just insane.
Perkins said he was educated about art in part by Rick Lowe, the Houston-based artist and community organizer whose Townhouse project have become a major example of the art of social practice. It has several other works by Barnes and those of other important black artists of the past, including Charles White and John T. Biggers, the famous mural artist, as well as young visual artists such as Angelbert Métoyer and Dowolu Jabari.
Lowe explained how “the role of the collector is to send a signal of what is important to museums and to the world,” Perkins said. “I took that to heart; OK, I’m now an advocate for certain things, that’s my role – to be a steward of certain works of art and also have fun doing it.
He collected works by black artists whose value the world had not yet fully recognized. “I’m not the art historian, I’m not the art genius, but I know the markets,” he said. “And I know when something is well, well, well out of whack.”
The Barnes was a prime example, Perkins said.
He added that he hoped to lend the Barnes painting to a museum so that the public could enjoy it before the work took pride of place in his home – where “I can see it every day and I imbue with the dividend of memory and happy absurdity that I may possess it.
Female artists also did well on Thursday night, namely Howardena Pindell, whose work of stitched canvas squares sold for $1.3 million (estimate $300,000-$500,000); Ruth Asawa, whose brass and copper wire sold for nearly $2 million (estimate $800,000-1,200,000); and Grace Hartiganwhose colorful abstract “Early November” sold for $1.4 million (estimate between $800,000 and $1.2 million).
A bronze cast of Picasso from 1909, “Head of a woman (Fernande)“, contributed $48.5 million for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition fund, having recently been disposed of by the museum and is expected to sell for $30 million.
The impact of the Barnes sale was immediately apparent at Christie’s Friday sale of the day, where another work by the artist – “storm dance” — sold for $2.3 million on an estimate of $100,000-150,000. Perkins said he intended to buy both, but after “Sugar Shack” he was “tired and delighted with the battle”.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for 40 years,” he said.
“The good news is I got the part,” Perkins added. “The bad news is that I don’t think I can steal these things anymore.”