Some recognize the painting from “Good Times,” the 1970s sitcom about a Black Chicago family. Others who see it think of Marvin Gaye’s 14th studio album, “I Want You.”
The sale set a new record, and it’s also the first time Barnes’ work made an appearance at the evening sale, the company said on its website.
Hedge fund manager and poker player Bill Perkins bought the piece after more than 10½ minutes of bidding, the company said.
Last November, a similar piece from Barnes, “Ballroom Soul,” was sold at Christie’s from the collection of Danny and Donna Arnold for $550,000. That was the record price until Perkins’ purchase, a spokeswoman for Christie’s said. The estimated going price was $80,000 to $120,000.
The company wanted to make sure this year’s estimate was higher than any previous one, but not too high, said Emily Kaplan, co-head of the 20th century evening sale at Christie’s New York.
The “Sugar Shack” painting features Black men and women swinging, singing and getting down at a club; it was estimated to sell for $150,000 to $200,000. Kaplan said the auction house had an idea that it would “smash through the estimates,” but they guessed it might go for $2 million or $3 million.
Other sales from Christie’s: Iconic Marilyn Monroe portrait by Andy Warhol sold for $195 million at auction
Kaplan said the company knew it was an “extremely special painting” and they were aware of its inclusion on Marvin Gaye’s album and the sitcom. The market for Barnes’ pieces has been on an upward trajectory, she said.
The day after Perkins bought “The Sugar Shack,” Christie’s sold another Ernie Barnes piece called “Storm Dance,” a Christie’s spokesperson said. It went for $2.34 million but was estimated to sell for $100,000 to 150,000.
Barnes’ paintings have been recognized “in a new light” recently, Kaplan said, noting that there was an exhibition at the California African American Museum that featured “The Sugar Shack” and others.
“It was really part of the cultural consciousness in a way that no other Ernie Barnes painting was,” she said. “We certainly didn’t know until that moment that it was going to sell at the level that it did. That is extremely rare and very, very special.”
The night of the Sugar Shack purchase, Perkins posted about it on Instagram, calling it “a childhood dream come true.” He told a social media user on Twitter that he plans to put it in his house.
The auction house has online, day and evening sales, Kaplan said. Day sales and online sales are typically higher volume but lower value, while their highest-value works are typically sold at evening sales.
Marvin Gaye’s album and “Good Times” contributed to piece’s value of “Sugar Shack.”
“It is definitely safe to say that added to the cultural recognition and resonance of this image,” she said.
Kaplan said the sale included a diverse set of artists, including Claude Monet. She made an effort to include more female artists and artists of color because for so long, they were overlooked for older, white artists. There was a resistance, she said, to include them in the canon of art history.
“The fact that we included this and it has such a remarkable price was, I think, a real validation. The market is strong for works of art by artists of color. That was really an important thing for me and shining light on incredible and undervalued artists.”
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas and food.