Art

Inside the Wild West Auction for Ernie Barnes’s ‘The Sugar Shack’

And now, the forces within the art market are betting big on an artist who once struggled to break out of sales at auction houses such as Swann’s, which focuses on African American artists. On Thursday, New York galleries Ortuzar Projects and Andrew Kreps, along with the talent-agency-associated art venture UTA Fine Art, announced that they would all be jointly representing the Barnes estate going forward.

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The $15 million price was clearly well beyond even the most ambitious estimates, but there are signs that the market will only get stronger. No one is more bullish than the man who just dropped a sum of money on a painting 80 times what the auction house thought it would sell for.

“Imagine if some guy got to own the Mona Lisa, or Monet’s Water Lilies—if someone was like, ‘Yeah, I bought it for one thousand dollars, and it’s on my living room wall,’” Perkins said. “That would be an amazing story, right? Well, that’s me.”

Barnes’s meteoric resurgence can be traced back to 2018, when the California African American Museum started planning the artist’s first museum show in decades.

“African American people who were familiar with good times, they think back to how important that painting was to their psyche,” said Bridget R. Cooks, the curator of the show and a professor at the University of California, Irvine. “And the centerpiece of the show was The Sugar Shack.

The show piqued the interest of Arthur Lewis, the head of UTA Fine Art, the visual-art arm of the venerable Los Angeles talent agency. He eventually got to chatting with Luz Rodriguez, Barnes’s longtime assistant trustee of the estate, and they hacked out a deal to stage a show at the Beverly Hills outpost in 2019. After a brief pandemic delay, it opened in late 2020, and one of the fans was Andrew Kreps, who found his way to the work even though he conceded that Barnes’s work “wasn’t normally what I show” and that he was “a little bit outside of the art world.”

“I stumbled on it during the pandemic after UTA’s show and I was like, Oh, right, good times,he said. “But I just really, really loved it. So I reached out to the estate, and we put together a show.”

One day, Kreps’s fellow Tribeca dealer, Ales Ortuzar, We walked in to see some of the work the estate had sent over. While Kreps represents mostly living artists, and some of them are quite young, Ortuzar has, since he left David Zwirner to open his own gallery in 2018, focused on underappreciated artists who have yet to get their due in New York. They agreed to present the show together, at the shared space at 55 Walker Street.

To their surprise, sales were strong. Kreps said that he sold one work to a very serious collector who installed it in his home next to an important painting by Jacob Lawrence, the Black artist whose work has sold for as much as $6 million. And The Sugar Shack also exchanged hands while it hung in the Kreps show. While the painting wasn’t technically for sale, when the show opened September 24, it was owned by the California couple Jeannie and Jim Epstein, who it in 1986. But many sources indicated that the Epsteins purchased were not the consignors of the $15.3 million Ernie Barnes. When speaking to Kreps, he explained that, while the Epsteins did indeed own the work when they loaned it to the show, and that it wasn’t for sale, when the show closed October 30, it was owned by another entity. And that entity consigned it to Christie’s a few months later.

After the hammer came down on The Sugar Shack, Perkins was immediately besieged. Coodie, the filmmaker whose decades-in-the-making Kanye West documentary, Jean-Yuhs, was a surprise Netflix hit, wheeled his camera over to track Perkins as he came through the room. (Before Barnes died, Kanye commissioned him to make a painting that commemorated the fact that he survived a near-fatal car crash, and the finished work features a winged, angel-like figure that looks a lot like Kanye West.) After fighting through A pack of answers, Perkins made his way to a series of art dealers and advisers, many of whom speculated that Jensen had been on the phone with Melody Hobson, the wife of George Lucas—the two are longtime Ernie Barnes collectors, and they’ve been on a buying spree ahead of opening his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in LA next year. At a certain point, Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti came up to offer his congratulations in person—a rare honor to bestow upon any bidder, winning or otherwise.

“I’m the CEO of Christie’s,” the CEO of Christie’s told Perkins.

“I’m, um, really emotional right now,” Perkins said. “I either wanted it, or I wanted that guy to pay.”

Despite the sky-high price, when I spoke with Perkins a few days after the sale, with some time to reflect, he still thought that not only did he pay a fair price for the work, but that he got it way cheaper than what it’s worth.

“I can’t pillage this piece as cheaply as I used to, but I still plundered,” Perkins said. “When people are biased, that’s how they undervalue things. But I can take the metrics that they use to value art and easily show that this is a $100 million painting.”

The Rundown

Your crib sheet for comings and goings in the art world this week and beyond…

…For the first time ever, MoMA PS1 held its annual gala on site at the former schoolhouse the museum operates in Long Island City, a raucous upgrade on the usual shindig in the lobby of its big sister, MoMA, in Midtown. “This is Queens, and when you’re here you hear the subway,” director Kate Fall said during a speech, after being temporarily drowned out by the 7 train overhead. But on this day Queens had a distinct masters-of-the-universe Manhattan energy, as tables were bought by the Soroses, the Lauders, the Speyers, the Kravises, the Fulds, the Aaronses, and the Dubins. Artists in attendance included honorees Rashid Johnson, Deana Lawson, and Djali Brown-Cepeda, plus Taryn Simon, Julie Mehretu, Chase Hall, Kayode Ojo, Odili Donald Odita, Hugh Hayden, Marie Karlberg, Fred Eversley, and so, so many more.

…A seasoned Frieze New York attendee would have certainly clocked the two large paintings by super in-demand artist Issy Wood in the booth of Carlos/Ishikawa, her longtime London gallery. But the more eagle-eyed fairgoers also saw one hanging on the walls of the Michael Werner booth, and a director confirmed that Wood will be working with the gallery going forward. A stellar choice for all involved!

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