In recent art world news, a painting by celebrated African American contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall generated an unexpected windfall for a Chicago municipal agency last week at Sotheby’s in New York.  The vibrant painting titled “Past Times” (1997) fetched $21.1 million at auction last week, which is reported to be nearly 900 times the $25,000 that the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (“MPEA”) originally paid for it in 1997, and set a world auction record for the artist.  Although the painting was not the priciest work auctioned off last week, it likely produced one of the most significant returns on investment for one of the least likely of collectors.

The state of Illinois formed MPEA oversees McCormick Square, which encompasses the McCormick Place Convention Center, the Wintrust Arena and two hotels along the shores of Lake Michigan.  The MPEA must spend some of its budget on artwork to be publicly displayed in its facilities.  As such, the municipal agency currently owns over 100 works from a diverse range of artists.

Marshall’s Past Times painting was one of the works purchased by the MPEA in 1997 from the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles (now the Koplin Del Rio Gallery of Seattle), which was one of the artist’s dealers.  The painting is described as a “lush panorama” of African Americans engaging in various leisurely activities, including boating, croquet, golf and picnicking, with a cityscape in the background.  Marshall rose to prominence in the 1980s for his portrayals of black culture.

After being acquired for McCormick Square, the painting was displayed in the convention center hallway for many years with minimal protection such that it was liable to damage or theft as its value soared.  After some time, officials had started to question the appropriateness of keeping the painting displayed at the convention center.  The painting was sent to storage while the MPEA decided what to do with it.

The MPEA fittingly acknowledged that it is not a museum set up to display an artwork of this value in its capacity as a convention center operator.  The MPEA had decided earlier this year to sell the prized painting at auction.  Sotheby’s had estimated that the painting would sell in the range of $8 million to $12 million.  It had sold for nearly double the high estimate.  The MPEA was reported to be “thrilled” with the auction results.  The sale proceeds will be directed to the infrastructure needs of the campus.

While the sale was very profitable for the MPEA, it is said that the public may be deprived of a highly-valued work of art (Grammy award-winning hip-hop producer and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs has been identified as the buyer of Marshall’s Past Times painting).  An official of the MPEA noted that Marshall’s work is easy to find nearby at Chicago area museums (i.e., Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Chicago Cultural Center) as the artist has been based in Chicago for decades.

Fortunately, even after last week’s sale, the public will still have access to Marshall’s work and perhaps Combs will decide to publicly display Past Times for at least some of the time during his ownership of this monumental work.