The unexpected star of Christie’s 20th-century auction last week was The Sugar Shack, a painting by Ernie Barnes. The 1976 work went for $15 million, an astonishing 76 times its high estimate of $200,000.
A leading 20th-century artist well-known for his unique movement style, Ernie Barnes was the first American professional athlete to become a noted painter. In pop culture, Barnes’ paintings appear on music album covers, on television, and movies, but there was one dance hall scene that changed his life forever.
The Sugar Shack painting, pictured below, was completed in 1976 by Barnes. Today it is one of the most iconic paintings that the visual artist has ever done. He completed two different versions; actor Eddie Murphy is rumoured to have this valued version safely displayed in his home. The painting went on even further to be placed on the cover of American singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye’s; I Want You album.
The Sugar Shack, which depicts a dance hall filled with vibrantly drawn African American dancers, elongated as they move the rhythms of an R&B band, was inspired by a childhood memory when he snuck into his North Carolina hometown hall in the 50s. The joyous scene depicts his unique style of characters and movement as they dance with their eyes closed – fully immersed in the music.
They most certainly do not want anyone watching them.
During the 1960 NFL draft, held in November 1959, Barnes was drafted in the 10th round by the then-World Champion Baltimore Colts. During his five years in the NFL, Barnes also played for multiple other teams, and many people acknowledge how he mastered the form of his painted football characters.
However, when an injury struck, Barnes turned to his true passion in life – the creative art world.
Despite his massive success in the exhibition, his name and work soon became overlooked in the industry. So, to stand out, he found a sporting niche where he would paint various events or action events which would then be sold off as commissions.
With a career now snowballing into stardom, the talented artist soon dipped into other themes and topics surrounding the periods of the time. Ernie Barnes sadly passed away in 2009 at 70-years-old after battling leukaemia. But to this day, his memory has proven to live on.
In 2022, Christie’s, a famous British auction house, auctioneer Adrien Meyer warned that there were 22 telephones ready to enter the bid. Still, the winning bidder, Houston-based professional poker player turned energy trader Bill Perkins, made a memorable trip to New York to ensure he could win his lot in person.
After an intense ten minutes – it was his.
“I would have paid a lot more,” Perkins told The New York Times following the auction. “For certain segments of America, it’s more famous than the Mona Lisa.”