American artist Ernie Barnes' The Sugar Shack painting grabs spotlight at Christie's US$468-million evening sale

Last night saw Christie’s New York deliver another successful auction during their 20th Century Evening Sale. Amongst the 42 lots offered, only one was unsold, pulling in for the house a total of US$468 million with a strong 97% sell-through rate.  

The spotlight of the evening, however, was on Ernie Barnes, whose painting The Sugar Shack set the saleroom ablaze and stirred up a 10-minute bidding battle. The painting was eventually sold to Bill Perkins for a whopping US$15.3 million, 100 times its low estimate of US$150,000 – a rare result happened at a modern evening sale.

LOT 29C | Ernie Shack | The Sugar Shack, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 1976
91.4 x 121.9 cm

  • Private collection, Los Angeles, acquired directly from the artist
  • Private collection, Los Angeles, 1986
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$150,000 – 200,000
Hammer Price: US$13,000,000
Sold: US$15,275,000

As soon as the auctioneer Adrien Meyer opened the proceedings for the lot at US$200,000, the bid surged up to US$1 million within a minute. The main competitor of the bid was Bill Perkins, a hedge fund manager, producer and a poker player, who was obviously determined to win the lot and continued to make ambitious bidding.

When the bid reached US$3 million, the only one standing in his way was Dane Jensen, a Senior Director of Art Advisory at Gurr Johns International in Los Angeles, who seemed almost as equally determined—and a bit cooler about his bidding.

After a round of intense bidding battle, Perkins placed the victorious bid of US$13 million, and Jenson declared that an unlucky number and capitulated. In the end, Perkins became the owner of The Sugar Shack by offering a staggering US$15.3 million with buyer’s premium – a price far surpassed its presale. He later said on his Instagram that it was "a chilhood dream come true".

The result also smashed the artist’s previous record, which was US$550,000, set by his 1978 Ballroom Soul at Christie’s New York last year. The room was filled with a round of applause before moving on to the next lot.

The auctioneer lowered the gavel at US$15.3 million, causing exploding applause in the saleroom

Bill Perkins

Ernie Barnes was born into a working-class family in Duham, N.C.. As a former professional football player who faced pointed racism even at the status of NFL offensive guard, Barnes was painfully familiar with the violence embedded in the experience of being Black in America.

The Sugar Shack was created in 1976, a difficult time for African American to gain fame. Barnes, however, managed to enter pop-culture consciousness and become a cultural icon in the music and entertainment industries.  

In 1976, Barnes made the first The Sugar Shack for titan of American soul, Marvin Gaye, whom they met during a game of basketball. One time after their game, Gaye caught a glimpse of Barnes’ painting in his car and decided to commission the artist to make an album cover for him. Barnes then augmented The Sugar Shack with reference to Gaye’s music. The work later became the cover of his 1976 I Want You album.

The Sugar Shack was also featured during the closing credits of the TV show Good Times, the first sitcom to center on an African-American two-parent family, and frequently engaged with questions of politics surrounding race and identity.

Ernie Barnes

Barnes as a NFL offensive guard (Number 61)

The Sugar Shack featured on Marvin Gaye's album cover

The Sugar Shack was a recall from the artist’s childhood memory at age thirteen. Barne snuck into Durham Armory, a venue that hosted segregated dances, and remarked the experience as “the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance”. The painting transports the viewers to an exultant black club. The canvas is filled with overjoyed and ecstatic dancers and partygoers, with most of them having their eyes closed – a signature in most of Barnes’ painting, as he believes, “We are all blind to one another’s humanity.”

The Sugar Shack offered for sale this time was the second duplicate Barnes created. In 2019, the painting was exhibited in California African American Museum, Los Angeles.  

The star-studded US$468-million auction was spearheaded by Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, which sold for US$54 million after fees, to become the top lot of the night. Alongside Pollock’s painting, the second and third most priciest lots fetched more than US$48 million. They were from Van Gogh’s Champs près des Alpilles and Picasso’s Tête de femme (Fernande).

Lot 21C | Jackson Pollock | Number 31, Oil, enamel, aluminum paint and gesso on paper mounted on Masonite
Created in 1949
78.7 x 57.2 cm

  • Betty Parsons Gallery, New York
  • Mr. and Mrs. Roy J. Friedman, Chicago
  • Christie's, New York, 3 May 1988, lot 28
  • Private collection, Japan
  • Private collection, United States, 1994
  • DL Fine Art, Geneva
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2006

Estimate on request (expected to fetch US$45 million)
Hammer Price: US$47,00,000
Sold: US$54,205,000

The bid opened at US$40 million. Quickly going up to US$46 million, the hammer was eventually down at US$47 million, and the painting was sold to a phone bidder with paddle number 1943. After fees, the present lot realized US$54.2 million, making it the most expensive lot of the sale.

Number 31 was executed in 1949, a few years after Jack Pollock began his action painting and intensively developed his celebrated drip technique.

For Pollock, painting was a whole-body activity. Although the artist had briefly experimented with pouring and dripping paint as early as 1943, it wasn’t until 1947 that he made the crucial decision to move the unstretched canvas onto the floor. "On the floor I am more at ease," the artist explained. "I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

Pollock painting with his drip method

Pollock's Number 17, his current auction-record holder

Before Pollock started to fling and drip the paint, he would swagger the canvas, walking around its perimeter to examine it from all angles. Experimented the effects of gravity and momentum on falling paint, he then positioned himself in different ways, almost like dancing, to create a sophisticated network of dripped and poured paints. This Number 31 bears witness to Pollock in full command of his drip method, and deploys a rich, radiant color palette.

Pollock’s artworks have reached auction heights in the last decade. The current record was set by Number 17 (1951), sold for US$61 million at Sotheby’s in November 2021. Other works, #31 and Number 19 which is another drip painting, fetched US$55 million and US$58 million respectively.

Lot 23C | Vincent Van Gogh | Champs près des Alpilles, Oil on canvas
Created in 1889
46.2 x 55.2 cm

  • Joseph Roulin, Marseilles (gift from the artist, 4 January 1890).
  • Ambroise Vollard, Paris (probably acquired from the above, June 1900).
  • Paul Pompidor, Narbonne (probably acquired from the above, 1901, and by descent).
  • Private collection (acquired from the above, 1980).
  • Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Paris.
  • Private collection, Europe (circa 2003).
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner.

Estimate on request (expected to fetch US$45 million)
Hammer Price: US$45,000,000
Sold: US$51,915,000

The lot opened at US$35 million and four bids propelled the price to US$44 million fast. While the work aroused quite a bit interest of clients from the Hong Kong saleroom, the lot was offered to the bidder with paddle number 1910. 

Painted in 1889, Champs près des Alpilles was created during Van Gogh’s stay in an asylum in Saint-Rémy. Having suffered a succession of breakdowns in Arles, the first of which drove him to cut off his ear, the artist had voluntarily admitted himself into the institution – it was also where Van Gogh’s mature style truly emerged.

The masterpiece stands as a true testament to the friendship between Van Gogh and Roulin. Roulin, a postman whom the artist had met and befriended during the time he spent in the hospital in Arles, was one of the most important models in of the artist’s career – he and his family featured in numerous Van Gogh’s known portraits, of which many are now held in museums around the world. Not only a model, Roulin was also a crucial support to Van Gogh. When the artist was living in Saint-Rémy, Roulin, who understood Van Gogh both as a person and an artist, continued to ardently encourage him from afar through regular correspondence.

Portraits of Roulin, now kept in the MoMA

In 1890, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Yesterday I sent 2 canvases to Marseille. I made a present of them to my friend Roulin, a white farmhouse among the olive trees and a wheatfield with a background of lilac mountains and a dark tree as in the large canvas I sent you.”

The second painting Van Gogh described is this Champs près des Alpilles. The vast panorama depicts a vista spanning a vivid green wheatfield outside the asylum with a majestic tree framed by the monumental peaks of the Alpilles in the background. Under his masterful hand, the world around him is transformed into undulating, ripple-like brushstrokes in vibrant and contrasting colors, imbued the canvas with a powerful and expressive charge.

Alpilles captured in the 1950s

Remained in private hands since it was created, the rare piece has never been auctioned and included in a public exhibition. The work was previously owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, until the couple sold it to a private collector in around 2003.

Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé

Lot 16C | Pablo Picasso | Tête de femme (Fernande), Bronze with dark brown patina
Created in 1909
Height: 41.9 cm

  • (possibly) Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
  • (probably) Henri Kaeser, Lausanne.
  • Buchholz Gallery (Curt Valentin), New York (probably acquired from the above, 12 July 1949).
  • Samuel A. Marx and Florene May Schoenborn, Chicago (acquired from the above, 7 May 1951).
  • Bequest from the above to the present owner, 1995.

Estimate on request (expected to fetch US$30 million)
Hammer Price: US$42,000,000
Sold: US$48,480,000

The bidding started at US$22 million and there were three main competitors in the New York saleroom. A total of six bids brought the work to the hammer price of US$42 million, offered by the client of Ana Maria, Senior Vice President, Heading of Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York. Sold for $48.48 million after fees, the sculpture was the auction’s second runner-up.

Considered Pablo Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture, Tête de femme (Fernande) is a three-dimensional study of the Spanish master’s first great love and muse, Fernande Olivier, with multiple perspectives seen at once.

There are approximately 20 known casts of Tête de femme (Fernande), the majority of which are in public institutions such as the Musée National Picasso in Paris, National Gallery in Prague, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The copy auctioned this time is one of the costliest deaccessions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met).

Donated to the Met by philanthropist Florene M. Schoenborn in 1995, the artwork offered for sale has been in the museum’s collection for more than 35 years. In 2013, Leonard A. Lauder, the heirs to the Estée Lauder Companies and a collector of Cubist art, gifted another version of it to the museum. Having a duplicate in their collection, the Met decided to sell the old one, with all proceeds going toward future acquisitions.

The Tête de femme (Fernande) gifted by Leonard A. Lauder to the Met

Tête de femme (Fernande) was born out of an intense period of creative production that Picasso enjoyed over the summer of 1909. In early June that year, the couple had travelled to a rural village in Horta de Ebro (today known as Horta de Sant Joan). Over their stay, Picasso went on his cubist adventure and produced a series of paintings to explore the specific form and structure of his mistress’s facial features. After they returned to Paris, Picasso immersed himself into these paintings and finally invented the new artistic language – sculpture – to render his subject from every angle, something which he could not achieve full in painterly form.

The image of Fernande was translated into a faceted, segmented sculpture that incorporate the intangible qualities of light and space. While the work is recognizable as the form a human head, the play of light across the fragmented construction shows that from some angles, certain parts look totally abstract.

Fernande Olivier, Picasso's muse

Other highlight lots:

Lot 30C | Emanuel Leutze | Washington Crossing the Delaware, Oil on canvas
Created in 1851
101.6 x 172.7 cm

  • Goupil, Vibert & Company, New York, commissioned from the artist, until 1858.
  • Alexander White, (probably) acquired from the above, by 1859.
  • Henry Leeds and Co., New York, 22 May 1863, sold by the above.
  • William H. Webb, New York, acquired from the above.
  • H.D. Miner's Art Gallery, New York, First Evening's Sale, A Very Fine Assemblage of Works of Art; Comprising the Private Gallery of Paintings, Statuary, Bronzes and Art Library of Mr. Wm. H. Webb, 29-30 March 1876, lot 65, sold by the above.
  • Stephen R. Lesher, New York, (probably) acquired from the above.
  • Arthur Lawrence Lesher, New York, by descent, 1895.
  • Mrs. Arthur Lawrence Lesher, New York, by descent, 1931.
  • Mrs. Dewey Everett, New York, by descent, 1946.
  • Mr. Francis Dewey Everett, Jr., New York, by descent, 1953.
  • Ambassador and Mrs. J. William Middendorf II, New York, acquired from the above, 1967.
  • Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 25 October 1973, lot 13, sold by the above (as Eastman Johnson, after Emanuel Leutze).
  • Duane Hillmer, Omaha, Nebraska, acquired from the above.
  • Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 20 April 1979, lot 28, sold by the above (as Eastman Johnson, after Emanuel Leutze).
  • Manoogian Collection, Taylor, Michigan, acquired from the above.
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2014.

Estimate: US$15,000,000 – 20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$39,000,000
Sold: US$45,045,000

Washington Crossing the Delaware is a famous painting depicting the American War of Independence. The lot sold for US$45 million, 2.6 times its presale estimate, setting a new personal auction record for Emanuel Leutze.

Starting at US$20 million, the auction battle was between the clients represented by Alex Rotter, the Chairman of Christie's 20/21 Art Departments and Marc Porter, Chairman, Christie's Americas. It was Rotter's client on the phone, with paddle number 1450, who won the lot. 

Leutze painted a total of three Washington Crossing the Delaware. The first was kept in Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany, but unfortunately destroyed during World War II. The second is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). The third is the one offered for sale this time, and was hung in the White House from the 1970s to 2014. 

Emanuel Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware hung in White House

Lot 24C | Andy Warhol | Skull, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Created in 1976
182.9 x 203.2 cm

  • The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 – 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$22,000,000
Sold: US$24,000,000


Lot 19C | Willem De Kooning | Untitled XXI, Oil on canvas
Created in 1977
177.8 x 203.2 cm

  • Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York
  • James Goodman Gallery, New York
  • Private collection, Texas
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988

Estimate: US$20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$21,500,000
Sold: US$25,007,500


Lot 18C | Claude Monet | La mare, effet de neige, Oil on Canvas
Created in 1874-1875
60.6 x 81.7 cm

  • The artist; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 24 March 1875, lot 15.
  • Paul Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
  • Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired from the above, 25 August 1891).
  • Henri Vever, Paris (acquired from the above, 17 January 1893); sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1-2 February 1897, lot 85.
  • Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie. and Isaac Montaignac, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
  • Gottfried Holthusen, Hamburg (acquired from the above, 13 January 1898).
  • Richard Semmel, Berlin; sale, Frederik Muller & Cie., Amsterdam, 13 June 1933, lot 21 (as Neige à Argenteuil) (unsold).
  • Philippe Leary, Strasbourg and Paris.
  • By descent from the above to the present owners.

Estimate: US$18,000,000 – 25,000,000
Hammer Price: US$22,000,000
Sold: US$25,580,000

Lot 31C | Pierre-Auguste Renoir|Berthe Morisot et sa fille, Julie Manet, Oil on canvas
Created in 1894
81.3 x 65.5 cm

  • Berthe Morisot, Paris (gift from the artist).
  • Julie Manet, Paris (by descent from the above, then by descent); sale, Christie's, New York, 8 May 2000, lot 27.
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

Estimate: US$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$21,000,000

Sold: US$24,435,000

Auction details:

Auction House: Christie’s New York
Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale
Date: 12 May 2022
Number of lots: 42
Sold: 41
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 97%
Sale Total: US$468,174,000