Bill Perkins, the Houston-based entrepreneur and amateur poker player, fought off intense competition from another bidder at Christie’s evening sale on May 12 to win a masterpiece by the late African American painter Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack (1976), for $15.3 million. The work had been estimated at just $150,000 to $200,000, so the final price was roughly 75 times that, artnet news reported.
“You know those scenes in Westerns, or Pirates of the Caribbean, where everybody is fighting and Johnny Depp just walks in and out with the treasure?” Perkins said. “That’s been me at every other auction.”
Perkins has been buying online for the past few years, and owns numerous other works by Barnes, as well as those by Charles White and John Biggers, and has been happily astounded at their relative affordability. “I’m walking away with the treasure while everybody is fighting over a Warhol or a Monet,” according to the artnet news report.
However, Perkins admitted that on Thursday, after having flown to New York from Houston solely to bid in person, he knew something was up when auctioneer Adrien Meyer announced that there were 22 telephone lines set up to compete. The Sugar Shack (1976) shows a group of Black dancers exuberantly enjoying a night at the Durham Armory, a famous dance hall in segregated North Carolina, in 1952. It was not only the cover image for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, it was also featured in the television show Good Times, as the credits rolled at the end of each episode.
“This image has been in my consciousness since I was a kid. I have an emotional connection to it,” Perkins says. He’s friends with artist Rick Lowe (currently featured in the Whitney Biennial) who has been advising and informing him about Barnes and other artists. “I never thought I could own this piece,” Perkins says. “As I got in a position where I could buy it, I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could own this iconic piece of American history, a very important, significant work.”
Perkins said asking how the painting came on his radar is kind of like asking how someone knows about the Mona Lisa. “If I did a survey, and I put a picture of the Mona Lisa and a picture of The Sugar Shack side by side, in my group of African Americans, they’re going to remember The Sugar Shack more than anything else.”