The Sugar Shack, a famous 1976 painting by ex-NFL player, Ernie Barnes; which features during the opening credits of the popular sitcom Good Times; was auctioned off in New York on Thursday, for a whopping $15.3 million.
Ernie Barnes Jr. (July 15, 1938 – April 27, 2009) was an American artist; well known for his unique style of elongated characters and movement. He was also a professional football player, actor and author.
Christie’s concluded its marquee May sales week on Thursday night with a blockbuster night of back-to-back auctions. A sale of Impressionist and modern works from the collection of late New York philanthropist and socialite; Anne Bass, was followed by a sale of 20th-century art. With buyer’s fees, the two sales brought in a whopping $831 million.
Adrien Meyer, Christie’s global head of Impressionist and modern art; took the auction podium to greet yet another packed house. The first works on display were those previously owned by Bass; who amassed her fortune during her marriage and subsequent divorce from Texas oil magnate Sid Bass. Twelve works from her collection, including works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Mark Rothko; Fetched $363 million. Hence, exceeding the presale estimate of $250 million. All of the works in the auction were sold.
The works that stood out the most in the subsequent sale; may not have been as highly valued as those previously owned by Bass. But they drew significant bidding wars and prices far above expectations. Records were set in the 20th-century art sale for; Emmanuel Leutze, Howardena Pindell, Grace Hartigan, and Blinky Palermo. An Ernie Barnes painting, in particular, drew attention and outperformed expectations.
Top Bass Sale by Monet, Degas, and Hammershøi
The majority of the Bass sale’s total came from two Mark Rothko paintings; that once hung on adjacent walls in Bass’s New York apartment. Both came with financial guarantees. Despite accounting for $116 million of the total sale; and being some of the most expensive works of the evening, they performed below expectations.
Untitled (Shades of Red), the first Rothko to be offered; fetched $58 million from a bidder on the phone with Christie’s New York impressionist specialist Max Carter. It fell short of its low estimate of $60 million. The other, No. 1, an orange and pink abstraction (1962); failed to pique bidders’ interest, selling for $43 million; which is less than its $45 million estimate.
Among the other highlights of the Bass sale was a $20 million estimate on a 1927 version of Degas’s famous sculpture of a young dancer. It exceeded that expectation, securing a $36 million bid; eliciting applause, and proceeding to a phone bidder with New York contemporary art specialist Ana Maria Celis. It sold for a total of $41 million, with buyer’s fees.
Le Parlement, Soleil couchant (1900–03), a lavender-skyed view of the UK Parliament building; was one of three Monets to sell during the night’s first leg. It drew five bidders and was hammered at $66 million; far exceeding its low estimate of $40 million. A buyer on the phone with Christie’s European global president, Jussi Pylkkänen paid $75 million for the painting. A second Monet, Nymphéas (1907), a water lily painting, sold for $56 million.
The most spirited bidding in the early part of the night was for a rare interior scene by Dutch modernist; Vilhelm Hammershøi.
After a protracted bidding war, Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror), 190; was hammered at $5 million, more than three times the $1.5 million estimate. It was won by a phone bidder with Christie’s Shanghai-based specialist Tan Bo; who defeated a New York client on the phone with contemporary specialist Sara Friedlander. The final price was $6.3 million; a record for the artist and a significant increase over his previous auction record of $6.2 million set in 2017.
Ernie Barnes steals the show at the 20th-Century Art Sale
Following the success of the Bass auction, a 20th-century art auction fetched $468 million. Paintings by Monet, van Gogh, and other well-known artists were auctioned here, but work by women and Black artists; who have traditionally been under-represented on the auction block, stole the show.
Among the top lots of the night was a recently restored Claude Monet landscape. It sold for $25.6 million, exceeding its high estimate. The proceeds of the sale were divided between the heirs of original owner Richard Semmel; who sold it under duress in the years leading up to World War II, and its current owners; a French family whose members refused to reveal their identities. In March, the two parties reached a legal settlement, which resulted in the sale of the work.
Grace Hartigan’s 1959 abstract canvas Early November sold for $1.3 million; falling just short of its high estimate of $1.2 million. The price broke the artist’s previous record of $687,500 set in 2021 at Christie’s; for her 1961 canvas The Phoenix.
Hartigan’s achievement is one of many set by postwar female painters in recent auctions. Houses are looking to bring influential women to the salesroom; who have gone unnoticed in comparison to their historical male counterparts.
The Sugar Shack
It wasn’t until Ernie Barnes’ 1976 dance hall scene, The Sugar Shack; which was used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album; I want you, that a bidding war broke out. The California African American Museum (CAAM) mounted a Barnes survey in 2019; and there has been renewed interest in his work since then. Following a heated bidding war between a New York phone bidder and another determined bidder in the room; the work’s hammer price soared to previously unheard-of heights, eliciting awe from the audience.
The canvas eventually sold for a staggering $15.3 million, a factor of 80 times its $150,000 low estimate.