“Past Times” by Kerry James Marshall sold Wednesday night for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s, generating a windfall for a Chicago agency.
A lone painting by a celebrated contemporary artist turned into a windfall on Wednesday night for a small municipal agency in Chicago.
The painting, Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times,” sold for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York, nearly 900 times the $25,000 that the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority spent on it in 1997, and a record for the artist. In a statement, Lori Healey, the authority’s chief executive, said the M.P.E.A. was “thrilled” by the auction results, adding that the price tag ended up “far exceeding anyone’s expectations.”
While it was not the most expensive piece auctioned off Wednesday — that was $34.1 million for a small Jackson Pollock drip painting on paper — it most likely produced one of the biggest returns on investment for one of the least likely of collectors.
The authority, which was formed by the state of Illinois, oversees McCormick Square, which includes the McCormick Place Convention Center, the Wintrust Arena and two hotels along the lakefront. It is required to spend a portion of its budget on art displayed to the public. As a result, it currently possesses more than 100 pieces from a wide variety of artists.
One of the works it bought in 1997 was Mr. Marshall’s “Past Times,” which the agency acquired from the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles, one of Mr. Marshall’s dealers. (It is now the Koplin Del Rio Gallery of Seattle.) A celebrated African-American contemporary artist based in Chicago, Mr. Marshall began his rise to prominence in the 1980s for his depictions of black culture.
He painted “Past Times” the same year the authority bought it (and the same year he was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”). The work is a lush panorama of African-Americans taking part in several leisurely activities. Among them: golf, croquet, picnicking and boating. In the background are buildings that evoke public housing towers.
“The whole project is about placing the black figure in the space of traditional painting, where that figure is very hard to find historically,” said Ian Alteveer, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted a traveling retrospective of Mr. Marshall’s work, including “Past Times,” at the Met Breuer in 2016-2017.
After it was acquired for McCormick Square, the painting hung in the hallway of the convention center for years with very little protection, making it liable to theft or damage, even as its value grew. The authority lent the piece out for the traveling show, which began at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and also traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.
Officials began to question whether it was appropriate to keep the painting at McCormick Place. They sent it to storage while they contemplated what to do with it.
“We’re not a museum,” said Ms. Healey said in an interview before the auction. “We’re a convention center. We’re not set up to display a piece of art of this value.”
Earlier this year, the agency decided to put it up for public auction. Sotheby’s had estimated it would sell for $8 million to $12 million. It ended up selling for almost double the top-end estimate. Ms. Healey said the money would be put toward the infrastructure needs of the campus.
Though the sale was greatly profitable for the agency, it may deprive the public of a highly-valued work of art. (The buyer was not identified.) But Ms. Healey noted that Mr. Marshall has been based in Chicago for decades and that his work is easy to find nearby, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, as well as the Chicago Cultural Center, where Mr. Marshall painted a mural — “Rush More” — honoring 20 women who have shaped the city’s cultural scene.
“If we were a museum, it would be a much different answer than it is as a convention center operator,” Ms. Healey said.
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