Living Black Artists Create Bidding Frenzy Frontier

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Flesh and Spirit” sold for more than 2,000 times its purchase price
  • Diddy purchased Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times” for $21 million

The contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s auction house turned up the heat surrounding black art. Three living black artists set auction records including Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times” painting which sold for $21.1 million. How important are these milestones to help move black artists into the mainstream art spotlight?

Why This Matters: Pieces by black artists drew dozens of bidders and even celebrities like Swizz Beatz and Diddy got in on the action. One of the highest selling black art pieces was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Flesh and Spirit” which sold for $30.7 million, more than 2,000 times its purchase price from 35 years ago.

Swizz Beatz won a portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye for $555,000, which was part of the Studio Museum group. Leave it to Diddy to go all out with a $21 million purchase of Marshall’s “Past Times” painting. This piece of art was acquired in 1997 for $25,000 by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) in Illinois for the South Building of its McCormick Square campus. Originally the painting was purchased with public money raised through project-expansion bonds. The sales price should make a small dent in the state’s debt problem, even as S&P projects the state’s budget deficit will likely eclipse $7bn in its fiscal 2018 year.

Also, The Studio Museum of Harlem raised a hearty $16.4 million from the auction. “It’s a testament to the importance and centrality of these artists within the narrative of contemporary art,” said Thelma Golden the Studio Museum’s director to Bloomberg.  It will use its proceeds from the auction to help renovate and expand the museum’s 125th Street home.  

Situational Awareness: Though this art sale was a rousing success for black artists, the sale did fuel some frustration. There are some people who argue real collectors can’t get in because it’s too hard to compete with the global billionaires. Even Swizz Beatz noted it’s time for us to buy more of our own art, which can be quite a challenge at these price points.

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