A GRAND-SCALE PAINTING by Kerry James Marshall had bidders battling last night. Marshall’s “Past Times” (1997) soared beyond the high estimate and sold for $18.5 million ($21.1 million, including fees). The high bid came by phone, setting an artist record.

The painting was featured in Sotheby’s May 16 Contemporary Art Evening Auction and carried a pre-sale estimate of $8 million-$12 million. The estimate exceeded Marshall’s existing record at auction, guaranteeing a new high mark if the painting sold. Given this, the record-setting price was not unexpected. Less anticipated was how high the price ultimately climbed, selling for four times the artist’s previous high.

Last November, Marshall’s auction record was set when his portrait of Harriet Tubman sold for $5,037,500 (including fees) at Christie’s New York.

A monumental acrylic and collage on canvas painting, “Past Times” was featured in “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s recent 30-year survey. Inspired by European masterworks such as Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Marshall’s canvas reinterprets the image of a leisurely Sunday afternoon. The painting imagines an African American experience in the park, a contemporary pastoral scene featuring black figures engaged in golf, croquet, waterskiing and boating. Meanwhile, lyrics by The Temptations and Snoop Dogg flow from two boom boxes resting on a picnic blanket.


Lot 5A: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Past Times,” 1997 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Estimate $8 million-$12 million. Sold for $21.1 million including fees ($18.5 million hammer price). RECORD


“PAST TIMES” WAS CONSIGNED to Sotheby’s by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), which owns McCormick Place, Chicago’s Convention Center. MPEA invests in public art and manages a collection of more than 100 works, which are displayed throughout McCormick Place. Marshall’s painting was purchased for $25,000 from a Los Angeles gallery in 1997. The convention center authority decided to sell the work during the course of a periodic review, determining that given its escalated value, the insurance and security it required was beyond its mission and capacity.

The historic price paid for “Past Times” eclipsed Marshall’s record and surpassed another benchmark set just two months ago by Mark Bradford. In March, Bradford’s “Helter Skelter I,” the nearly 34-foot-long painting he made in 2007, sold for about $10.4 million (nearly $12 million, including fees) at Phillips London. In addition to being a record for the Los Angeles-based artist, it was the highest-ever auction price achieved for a work by a living African American artist. Having far-surpassed Bradford’s record, Marshall is now the most expensive living African American artist.

Throughout his career, Marshall has emphasized a grand mission, his desire to integrate the art historical canon. He has made remarkable progress toward this goal, in recent years, with his works acquired by numerous American museums. Whether or not “Past Times” goes to an institution, the historic price it achieved makes a profound statement about the value of his work in the global market and, by extension, the demand for his powerful images of black people. CT


UPDATE (5/18/18): Who bought the painting? Sean Combs, the entrepreneur and Grammy Award-winning music producer, made with winning bid


READ MORE About how artists might benefit from maintaining a stake in their work, based on a new study

READ MORE about Marshall’s “Mastry” exhibition on Culture Type


Recently released by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.


WATCH VIDEO Below, see auctioneer Oliver Barker field bids as buyers vie for Marshall’s record-setting painting


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