ON THURSDAY NIGHT, Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale in New York featured 42 lots, premium works of art by a variety of famed artists such as Ruth Asawa, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Jackson Pollock, William De Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Andy Warhol. The selections included two paintings by African American artists. Both set new auction records. One of them is making headlines: “The Sugar Shack” (1976) by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009).
The second lot up for auction in the sale was “Untitled #24 (1978-79), a mixed-media painting composed of numerous sewn canvas squares by New York artist Howardena Pindell. The painting sold for $1.1 million, more than twice the estimate. Like most works in the sale, the lot came and went relatively quickly, but marked a milestone. For the first time, Pindell’s work surpassed more than $1 million at auction. The result set a new artist record.
Lot 29C: ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009), “The Sugar Shack,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches / 91.4 x 121.9 cm.). | Estimate $150,000-200,000. SOLD for $15,275,000 fees included. RECORD
About a third of the way through the auction, “The Sugar Shack” by Barnes came up for sale. The painting of a lively, sultry dance hall scene is the artist’s most well-known work, popularized by the appearance of the image during the credits of the 1970s TV show “Good Times” and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You.”
When the lot was opened, the auctioneer said 22 interested parties were on the phones ready to bid on “The Sugar Shack.” After that, it was a whirlwind. Bidding started below the estimate at $120,000 and quickly eclipsed the estimate, reaching $500, $600, $700,000, soon hitting $1 million and continuing to climb. Offers rose from $1.7 million straight to $2 million and continued to skyrocket, leaping from $6.2 to $7 million, $7.5 to $8.5 million. After $10 million was bid, $10.5 million was immediately offered.
Eventually, when bidding reached the seven-figure range, nearly all the potential buyers dropped out, leaving just two people vying for the painting. It came down to a competition between two men bidding live against each other, seated in the room in New York. Ultimately, after more than 10 minutes, Bill Perkins, an energy trader and hedge fund manager, prevailed and clapping ensued.
“The Sugar Shack” hammered at $13 million, selling for a final price of $15,275,000, with Buyer’s Premium fees included. The staggering result established a huge new auction record that exponentially smashed Barnes’s previous record, which was $550,000 (established last year, when the 1978 painting “Ballroom Soul” sold at Christie’s).
For the first time, a work by Barnes has sold for more than $1 million, and then some, at auction. Estimated to sell for $150,000-$200,000, “The Sugar Shack” climbed to a whopping 76 times the high estimate.
The staggering $15.3 million result established a huge new record that exponentially smashed Ernie Barnes’s previous auction record, which was $550,000.
BORN IN DURHAM, N.C., Barnes became a professional football player before devoting himself full time to his art. His figurative paintings reflect memories of African American life growing up in the segregated South and capture racially diverse athletes, men and women playing all manner of sports.
“The Sugar Shack” is an early work, produced about a decade into Barnes’s practice. The painting is based on a childhood memory of a dance the artist saw when he snuck into the Durham Armory.
Barnes went on to build a successful four-decade career in Los Angeles, establishing a collector base among African Americans, the sports world, and the TV, film, and music industries. The entrepreneurial artist organized his own touring exhibition over several years in the 1970s. “Beauty of the Ghetto” traveled to major U.S. cities. He died in 2009 at the age of 70. A dozen years later, Barnes is big auction news.
The Christie’s auction was live streamed and Luz Rodriguez, manager of the Barnes estate, was among the many who followed the sale of “The Sugar Shack” online. She and her husband watched the price soar into the millions while on a conference call with friends and the artist’s family. Rodriguez is convinced Barnes was there in spirit and witnessed the entire thing, too.
“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I don’t know what anybody else felt, but it was very surreal,” Rodriguez told Culture Type. “That’s Ernie. He’s doing it his own way, in life, out of life, he’s around. I know he was there tonight. I just know he was there. You can quote me on that. Ernie Barnes was there.”
“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I don’t know what anybody else felt, but it was very surreal.” — Luz Rodriguez, Ernie Barnes Estate
It was an intriguing auction moment. Barnes and a determined Perkins stole the show. “The Sugar Shack” fared particularly well in the sale overall. It was the ninth most expensive lot of the evening, topping works by big names such as Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, and Warhol.
Perkins, who is African American, founded Houston-based Skylar Energy. The author of “Die With Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life,” he is also an amateur poker player and avid art collector. According to post-auction media reports, Perkins already owns several works by Barnes, as well as Charles White, John Biggers, Norman Lewis, and Houston artist Dawolu Jabari.
The Christie’s sale was the first auction the collector ever attended in person. As bids for “The Sugar Shack” flew by, the auctioneer remained nimble. The room was rapt as Perkins bested the other bidders, sealing a history-making sale, and bringing much-deserved attention to Barnes.
Rodriguez found the low estimate for the painting to be laughable, called Barnes a “best kept secret,” and said the timing was right for the record-setting sale.
“People didn’t know what was going on,” Rodriguez said. “I knew what was going on. I knew what the reaction would be. I’ve seen the reaction over the years. People who knew what it was, knew what it was. Now people who did not know what it was, now know what it is.”
She continued: “This is the one that has gotten the most exposure. But he’s got a lot of great pieces. He’s done a lot of good work.” CT
FIND MORE about Ernie Barnes on his website
FIND MORE On April 28, the Art Career Podcast featured Fairchain CEO, Max Kendrick, who discussed his company’s plans to help artists obtain resale royalties
FIND MORE about a new effort in New Zealand set to benefit artists whose work is resold at auction
“From Pads to Palette” (1995) is an autobiographical volume by Ernie Barnes. Alongside his football sketches and paintings, the artist recounts his childhood in Durham, N.C., football experiences including the segregated AFL and early NFL years, and the start of his art career with his first solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Two children’s books chronicle the artist’s life, “Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery” with illustrations by Bryan Collier and “Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes,” written and illustrated by Don Tate. Also consider, “Die With Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life” by collector Bill Perkins, which was published last year.
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