A member of staff talks to visitors as they look at the painting. (Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg)

A 48,000% Return on a Painting May Be Illinois' Best Investment

(Bloomberg) -- Art may not save the world, but it could help a municipal authority in Illinois.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority voted Tuesday to sell a painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, estimated at $8 million to $12 million, at a Sotheby’s auction next month. The MPEA purchased the monumental canvas “Past Times” for $25,000 in 1997, a potential increase of as much as 48,000 percent.

Illinois can use all the help it can get. On Wednesday, the state sold $500 million of federally tax-exempt bonds. Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings rank Illinois one level above junk, the worst rating of any state.

Marshall is among the top contemporary artists, with growing demand from museums and private collectors. Long overlooked and undervalued, black artists like Marshall now occupy one of the market’s hottest corners. Phillips auction house will have one of his paintings -- “Untitled (Blanket Couple)" from 2014, estimated at $3.5 million to $5.5 million -- at a May 17 sale.

See Also: Black art spurs gold rush as collector stampede drives up prices

“Past Times,” which is being offered without a guarantee, was a centerpiece of Marshall’s acclaimed traveling retrospective that made a stop at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016-17. The unstretched canvas, 9-by-13 feet, depicts an idyllic scene in the shadow of a housing project. Black residents, clad in white, play golf and croquet, picnic on a red and white checkered blanket and water ski -- a riff on Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," which is at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The MPEA bought “Past Times” for the South Building of its McCormick Square campus, which was completed in 1996, according to Sotheby’s. It was paid for with public money raised through project-expansion bonds, said Cynthia McCafferty, a spokeswoman for the authority, which operates McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America.

“As part of our normal review, we realized that the art has appreciated significantly,” McCafferty said. “It needs to be displayed in a more secure environment than we can provide.”

Proceeds from the sale will be placed in a reserve fund for capital maintenance. MPEA has identified $500 million in needed improvements over the next 15 years, McCafferty said.

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