Ernie Barnes’ Masterpiece ‘The Sugar Shack’ Auctions for $15.3M, Sold to Highest Bidder In 10 Minutes

One of the most iconic pieces of Black art has fetched an eight-figure auction bid. The work, made popular by a 1970s hit sitcom, was sold for 76 times more than the seller’s estimated value.

The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes, from 1976.Credit…Christie’s Images Ltd.

According to the New York Times, on Thursday, May 12, “The Sugar Shack,” the piece of art made famous on the classic Norman Lear television show “Good Times” and featured as cover art on Marvin Gaye’s iconic “I Want You” album, has sold for $15.3 million at Christie’s 20th Century auction. The masterpiece is a pictorial snapshot of an old school jam, possibly in someone’s basement or warehouse, showing Black bodies bending and stretching to a beat no one can hear — and now the work belongs to a hedge fund manager and entrepreneur, Bill Perkins, who said he would have paid more for it if he had to.

“I stole it,” the 53-year-old said. “I would have paid a lot more. For certain segments of America, it’s more famous than the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ”

This is not the first time Barnes or his work has been compared to classical art staples. The Oakland Tribune once called him “Picasso of the Black art world.”

Perkins said he knew he wanted to be in person for the auction, anxious that a celebrity would swoop in and outbid him. The Houston resident said he thought to himself, “What if Oprah shows up? What if P. Diddy shows up? I’m not going to be able to buy this piece.”

So, he devised a simple, but effective plan: raise the paddle at all cost — even at his own expense.

He said he instructed his fiancée, Lara Sebastian, who traveled with him, and said, “Hey, babe, if I have a problem or I pass out, do not worry about me: Keep bidding.”

He told Bloomberg News he had only planned to pay about $2 million for the painting but ended up paying $15,275,000. “The plans went awry, to put it mildly,” the energy trader said. “I was shocked, but I knew it was a possibility.”

CNN reports after 10 minutes of bidding by over 22 bidders, Perkins walked away with his dream piece.

Christie’s said with Perkins’ purchase of “The Sugar Shack,” he makes history as owning the most expensive piece of art out of all of Barnes’ collection, paying 27 times more than his previously top-priced work. The auction house also underestimated the value of the piece, setting its sale margins before the event between the range of $150,000 to $200,000. 

When talking about why the piece was so extraordinary to him, Perkins said that growing up in New Jersey he “never saw paintings of Black people by Black artists. This introduced not just me but all of America to Barnes’ work. It’s the only artwork that has ever done that. And these were firsts. So, this is never going to happen again. Ever. The cultural importance of this piece is just crazy.”

“The Sugar Shack” is not only special to Perkins, but was a dear aspiration for a young Barnes, who transitioned in 2009.

“I got the idea for Sugar Shack by reflecting on my childhood,” he said. “And not being able to go to a dance I wanted to go to when I was 11.”

Considered a figurative and Neo-mannerist painter, Barnes’ art, not just the now-multi-million dollar “The Sugar Shack,” illustrated “the toughness and tenderness of ghetto life and a wide range of other wonderful images,” art consultant Adrienne Warren once said.

The North Carolina College of Durham — now North Carolina Central University — graduate and former professional football player counted some of the world’s top institutions and celebrities as his clients, including the 1984 summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, who he made four posters for, National Basketball Association, Sylvester Stallone and Kanye West.

Purchasing the work was also a way for Perkins to interject his aesthetic and sensibility into the art world, informing curators of museums and high-end galleries about widening their concept of collection-worthy art. Perkins said, “The role of the collector is to send a signal of what is important to museums and the world.” He said he learned that tidbit from his art collector mentor, Rick Lowe, Houston-based artist and community organizer at the center of the social practice art movement in the city.

“I took this to heart,” he said. “I am now the defender of certain things, this is my role — to be a steward of certain pieces of art and also have fun doing it.”

Perhaps, Perkins and Lowe’s theories are correct. The next day, another piece of Barnes’ “Storm Dance” sold for $2.3 million, up from an early evaluation of $100,000/$150,000. Perkins said he wanted to also secure that piece, but after the intense bout to get the piece of his dream, one he has been waiting for since he was 13 years old, he resisted.

“I’ve been waiting like 40 years for this moment,” he confessed.

“The good news is, I got the piece. The bad news is, I don’t think I’m going to be able to steal these things anymore,” he said.

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