Painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, bought for $25,000 in 1997, sells for $21.1 million
For two decades, millions of visitors to McCormick Place passed by a big, colorful painting hung by the main entrance to the South Building on their way to car, boat and other industry trade shows.
It turns out the urban pastoral painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall was far more valuable than many of the convention center’s exhibits.The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place, sold “Past Times,” a 13-by-9-foot work of acrylic and collage on canvas, for $21.1 million in an auction Wednesday evening at Sotheby’s New York. That’s more than double a recent appraisal, and an astronomical return on the $25,000 the agency spent in 1997 to acquire the newly finished painting.
The sale price of “Past Times” was a record for Marshall and the most ever paid for the work of a living African-American artist, according to Sotheby’s.
“It definitely exceeded our expectations,” said Cynthia McCafferty, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, also known as McPier.
A full-size photographic replica of the work, which depicts African-Americans picnicking along a lakeshore against an urban backdrop, has taken the original’s place since it was loaned out two years ago for a national touring exhibition of Marshall’s work.
For the art world, the record auction sale elevates Marshall, and his genre of contemporary African-American art, to elite status, experts said. “The painting really captured the imagination, and I think galvanizes a whole new generation of people collecting African-American art,” said Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division.
Todd Levin, a New York art adviser, said institutions have long “overlooked and undervalued” contemporary African-American artists and their work. Recently, however, curators and collectors have begun to play catch-up, and the increased demand has translated into higher prices.
“In the last two years, there’s been a real thrust by the institutions to spend both money and time in making sure they drag their permanent collections and exhibitions into the 21st century as far as equitable representation,” Levin said.
Raised in Alabama and Los Angeles, Marshall, 62, moved to Chicago in the late 1980s as a young, unknown artist. He has since become a fixture on the local arts scene and, more recently, a prominent national figure, with a broad body of work capturing the complexity and beauty of African-American life.
A South Side resident, he created a mural last year on the west facade of the Chicago Cultural Center — the site of his first showing — honoring women who have shaped arts and culture in the city, from Ruth Page to Oprah Winfrey. His fee for the project, which was dedicated in December, was $1.
Marshall could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Four bidders pursued “Past Times,” pushing the final bid to $18.5 million, not including fees, which brought the sale price to $21.1 million, Darrell Rocha, a Sotheby’s spokesman, said Thursday. Sotheby’s declined to identify the buyer, but the New York Times reportedFriday it was rapper Sean Combs.
McCormick Place will net something close to the “hammer price” of $18.5 million. The money will be used to help pay for $500 million in needed capital maintenance projects over the next 15 years at the convention center campus along South Lake Shore Drive.
The painting was one of more than 100 pieces of art on display at McCormick Place, McCafferty said. In March 2016, it was taken off display and loaned to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for a retrospective touring exhibit on Marshall. When it was returned last summer, McPier had the painting reassessed for insurance purposes.
“During the exhibit, we became aware of the increased interest in his work, and we knew that it was going to appreciate as a result of that exhibit,” said McPier CEO Lori Healey, who attended Wednesday’s auction in New York. “When the exhibit was over we made the decision to send it to storage while we determined what was the best course of action.”
McPier’s board voted in April to sell the painting.
A municipal corporation formed by the state in 1989 and overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor and governor, McPier owns McCormick Place, several hotels and the new Wintrust Arena. It also owns the land for Navy Pier. Curating fine art is not part of its portfolio.
“We are not a museum,” Healey said. “We cannot adequately protect or display a work of that value.”
The painting was certainly not cordoned off behind velvet ropes during its two decades on display at the convention center.
Joel Straus, a Chicago art adviser who selected all of the artwork that was installed at McCormick Place in the late 1990s, pitched the board to include Marshall, then a relatively unknown Chicago artist. At $25,000, Marshall’s work was not among the most expensive purchases in the convention center’s collection, he said.
“I’m thrilled that something I chose has done so well,” Straus said. “(Marshall) made it, but I am proud.”
While the auction windfall will help McPier in decidedly unglamorous ways — think roof patching and air conditioning maintenance — the sale will prove to be one of the agency’s highest returns on investment.
“Sometimes, you just get a little bit lucky,” Healey said.