BEFORE HE TURNED 50, Grammy award-winning music producer, entertainment mogul, and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs bought the most expensive painting by a living African American artist at auction. Earlier this month, Combs threw himself a huge 50th birthday bash and the painting, “Past Times” (1997) by Kerry James Marshall, served as a backdrop for party photos with the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West.

On May 15, 2018, Combs beat out several blue-chip bidders vying for “Past Times” at Sotheby’s New York. In the end, he placed the winning bid, purchasing the painting for a record-breaking $21.1 million (fees included).


Dec. 14, 2019: From left, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Sean Combs, and Jay-Z pose before “Past Times” (1997) by Kerry James Marshall at Combs’s 50th Birthday Bash presented by Ciroc Vodka at his Los Angeles home. | Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Sean Combs


Given the historic moment, speculation about who purchased the painting was high. Three days after the auction, the New York Times reported Combs was the buyer. Jack Shainman, Marshall’s New York dealer informed the newspaper. Shainman said music producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean had introduced Combs to the Chicago artist’s work.

“I know that this work has found a home in a collection with purpose and an eye toward preserving legacy—that of Sean Combs, and that means a lot,” Shainman told the Times.

Shainman spoke about the purchase (despite the fact that the dealer has a general policy not to discuss auction sales). Dean, a friend of Combs and an increasingly prominent art collector, has also talked about it. Marshall eventually commented on the sale, too.

But for more than a year, Combs remained quiet about the acquisition, choosing instead to feature it prominently in photographs documenting his milestone black-tie celebration.

ART WISE, MARSHALL’s monumental painting was the star of the Dec. 14 party. Displayed on a large wall inside the entrance to Combs’s Beverly Hills home, the work was an impressive backdrop. He posed with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Pharrell Williams in front of “Past Times.” Each has a durable interest in art and artists and is a collector in his own right. On Instagram, Combs captioned the photo simply, “My brothers.”

There are also photos of actress Nia Long, Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, Jermaine Dupri, and Kim Kardashian West, Khloe Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner, in front of the painting, which is 13 feet wide and nine feet high.

“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 painting reinterprets the image of a leisurely Sunday afternoon. The acrylic and collage on canvas work imagines a contemporary African American experience in the park 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.

Snoop was at the 50th birthday bash, along with Beyonce, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Kevin Hart, Andre Harrell, Doug E. Fresh, Chadwick Boseman, Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Kate Beckinsale, Naomi Campbell, Cardi B and Offset, Kobe Bryant, the Weekend, Usher, Travis Scott, Kris Jenner and Corey Gamble, Post Malone, Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, and Lizzo, Time magazine’s 2019 entertainer of the year, among many other key figures in hip hop and R&B. The lavish celebrity-filled party was photographed by Vanity Fair.


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


Combs (whose birthday is actually Nov. 4) released a behind-the-scenes highlight film of the party that hones in on a Black male figure in the painting driving a boat. Remarkably, the figure channels Combs, who has a penchant for yachts.

For a while now, he has also had a penchant for art. Combs has worked with an art advisor for a number of years and regularly shown up at Art Basel Miami Beach. In addition to Marshall, he has reportedly collected works by Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei, Keith Haring, Tracey Emin, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In August, Combs took his children to see the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at The Broad in Los Angeles.

IN AN ARTICLE published earlier this month in ARTnews, Dean recalled Combs’s historic purchase of Marshall’s “Past Times,” describing it as a “tough wrangle.” He said Combs was nervous. He’s done a lot in his high-profile career, and has been collecting art for years, but bidding in the tens of millions for a painting was new territory. Dean told ARTnews that afterward, Combs said: “Don’t expect me to do that every day.” Dean added, “But we had to do that! It was a monumental moment.”

Dean, who was also at Combs’s party, has collected a wide range of contemporary art throughout his career, but in recent years has emphasized the importance of Black people supporting artists of African descent. He calls it “owning our own culture.” Works by Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, Nina Chanel Abney, and Tschabalala Self are among the more recent additions to the Dean Collection, which he owns with his wife Alicia Keys.

In February, Dean presented “Dreamweavers,” a group exhibition featuring more than 20 African American artists including Hammons, Marshall, Nick Cave, Karon Davis, Arthur Jafa, Tschabalala Self, Ming Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Charles White, and Kehinde Wiley, at UTA Artist Space in Beverly Hills. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Williams, were among those at the opening.

In April, “Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection” opened at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at the Hutchins Center. Dean and Keys own the largest private collection of Gordon Parks photographs.

Beyond collecting, Dean is concerned about the power structure and economic dynamics of the art world. An advocate for artists, he has been speaking up about the need for auction houses and collectors to figure out a way to ensure artists profit when their work is resold on the secondary market. His No Commission art fairs enable artists to sell their work directly to buyers without having to give a percentage of the sales to a gallery. In addition, with a vision for creating a campus that provides studio space, exhibition space, business education, and recording studios for artists, Dean and Keys recently purchased a 110-acre property in Upstate New York.

“PAST TIMES” was consigned for sale at Sotheby’s by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), which owns McCormick Place, Chicago’s Convention Center. The municipal corporation made a handsome profit, having purchased the painting from a Los Angeles art gallery in 1997 for $25,000.

Marshall did not directly benefit from the record-breaking $21.2 million sale. The artist did, however, make a profound statement about the transaction. Marshall acknowledged the fact that Combs, a Black man, besting the other bidders was indeed a significant moment.

“The import of that is missed on a lot of people,” Marshall said to The Art Newspaper in June 2018. “This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world, where a Black person took part in a capital competition and won.” CT


UPDATED (12/30/19)


SEE MORE party images featuring Kerry James Marshall’s painting

READ MORE about why Sean Combs 50th party was in December, rather than November


FIND MORE about how Swizz Beatz is helping emerging artists keep all the proceeds from art fair sales and proposing a way collectors can ensure artists get a cut when their work is re-sold at auction or through a gallery here and here


Recently released, “Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting,” documents the artist’s 2018 exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London. “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 conducted by curator Dieter Roelstraete is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.”


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