There was a Cézanne, a Monet, and a Picasso up for sale at Christie’s 20th Century sale last week, but their sales paled in comparison to “Sugar Shack, “a 1976 painting by Durham figurative artist Ernie Barnes, which sold for $15.3 million. Its sale, to Texan hedge fund manager and poker player Bill Perkins, was more than 76 times its estimated value of $200,000.
“I stole it—I would have paid a lot more,” Perkins told the New York Times after the sale. “For certain segments of America, it’s more famous than the ‘Mona Lisa.’”
Barnes was born in 1938 in the “bottoms district” near the Hayti district and attended Durham’s then-segregated Hillside High School, where he was captain of the football team his senior year. He later attended North Carolina Central University and majored in art, though he was drafted into the American Football League and left school before he graduated. Upon retiring from football, he turned back to painting.
The joyful, exuberant “Sugar Shack” was drawn from a memory Barnes had of sneaking into watch dancers at the Durham Armoury dance hall.
The painting went on to leave a remarkable cultural thumbprint: in 1976, Marvin Gaye—with whom Barnes was “basketball buddies”—used it for the cover of his album I Want You, and it was later featured during the open credits of four seasons of the television show Good Times.
Although Perkins later moved to Los Angeles, scenes of mid-century Durham life—the Roxboro underpass, the Palace Barbershop—are staples of his paintings. He went on to gain fame for his stylish, elongated figures, and died in 2009.
Twenty-two bidders were originally in the fray for “Sugar Shack,” but Perkins proved determined, telling the Times that he considered his role to be “a steward of certain pieces of art and also have fun doing it.”
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